THE GREAT TOOKIE WILLIAMS DEBATE: HYPOCRISY ON EVERY SIDE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
LOS ANGELES, Dec. 5, 2005 -- Nothing inspires hypocrisy more than an impending execution. In this case, it is that of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, currently residing at California's San Quentin Prison. The execution's Dec. 13, 2005 proximity has brought out the worst in people, ranging from mindless bloodlust on the one side to nearly mindless illogic on the other.
The print media are all over the place on this, with many excellent recitations of the facts in local newspapers (see, for example, Josh Kleinbaum's Dec. 4 dailynews.com piece), but I will limit these remarks mainly to sources accessible on the internet and to our locally infamous conservative talk-radio culture.
There are a few rationalists weighing in on the subject. National Review Online has the pro-death penalty position presented in fairly dispassionate prose by a Los Angeles police officer writing under the pseudonym Jack Dunphy. The principled anti-death penalty position is argued (in his usual intelligent way) by Marc Cooper, who supports abolition. Joining Cooper in opposing the execution, but coming from another angle, are Eugene Robinson (in the Washington Post) and Earl Ofari Hutchinson (http://www.alternet.org/columnists/story/28559/), who try the more nuanced approach.
Not unsurprisingly, the award for tasteless excess goes to our local radio misfits John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou. More about them later.
As almost anyone interested in the case knows by now, Stanley "Tookie" Williams was a cofounder of the Crips gang some three decades ago. In 1979, he was arrested for the murders of four people. In 1981, twenty-four years ago, he was convicted of those charges and sentenced to death.
The murders occurred during the commission of two separate robberies, eleven days apart. All of the victims died from shotgun blasts fired at short range.
These are the undisputed facts. Beyond that, the partisans disagree. The pro-death side argues that Williams was convicted based on physical evidence and the testimony of numerous witnesses. The witnesses included one of his own accomplices (ruling out a mistaken identity defense). The physical evidence includes part of a shotgun shell collected at one of the murder sites. An expert witness for the prosecution testified that it had been fired from the defendant's own shotgun.
You would think that there would be universal revulsion for this man, but you would be wrong. The case has taken on national and international dimensions through events worthy of tabloid fiction: After more than a decade of violent and rebellious imprisonment, Williams reformed, or so his supporters believe.
Beginning in the early 1990s, he publicly repented of his gang activities and sought to counsel children against joining gangs. He wrote several books that supposedly have been useful in keeping kids out of gangs. He apparently brokered a truce between rival Los Angeles gangs that had been killing each other with great enthusiasm.
The story takes on Hollywood dimensions at this point: Williams was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and an American professor has continued to nominate him for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
If you look at Williams as a convicted killer who does a little scribbling to pass the time (not to mention doing a little rebuilding of his injured ego), these nominations seem little short of deranged. To death-penalty opponents, it generates a Williams hagiography, a sort of urban myth that may be useful in preventing his execution.
Those who argue for clemency say that killing Williams now would be a senseless act of barbarity. They argue that what a man does after conviction and sentencing should be considered in any decision as to whether his sentence should be commuted. Hutchinson has been the most eloquent in advancing this argument.
The debate has bounced back in forth in the public space, with prison officials claiming that Williams isn't reformed after all, and another camp arguing that the crime itself justifies the death penalty, no matter what Williams has done since.
Notice that the abolitionist position is easier to argue, because it is not necessary to claim that the condemned man has truly repented. It suffices to "just say no" to the death penalty.
Now, as the date of execution nears, the anti-death penalty groups have ramped up their activities. Public gatherings and demonstrations are being held all over the state. And with this ramping up has come the standard argument that we have come to expect whenever an execution looms: He didn't do it.
All sorts of petty details, ad hoc theories, ad hominem attacks on witnesses, all that sort of thing have come to the surface in a desperate drive to save Williams. The prosecution and jury have been accused of racism. The police and technical experts have been accused of sloppiness and racism.
In a system which demands that a jury be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, this doubt-mongering has become an expected part of the countdown to many executions.
In this case, the doubt-mongering doesn't play well. For one thing, it's been twenty-four years, and there have been lots of opportunities for reconsideration. Nevertheless, this is the tactic the public will face in the newspapers, the radio and television for the next several days.
One problem that the doubt game creates for the abolition side is that it plays into the hands of their opposition. Making spurious claims allows for public refutations, which damage the credibility of all death penalty foes.
As one example, here is how Jesse Jackson summarized his argument:
"The evidence, at best, is shoddy. His reputation as a gang leader was on trial, not the actual evidence of the murders . . . Not long ago we were told there was evidence of weapons of mass destruction, a slam dunk. We lost American lives on circumstantial information and we should not make that kind of life-or-death decision again" (cited from Yahoo.com news from AFP news service). Jackson made essentially the same assertion on a radio program I heard last week.
This is the sort of thing that right wing talk radio loves to sink its canines into. It allows for a rehashing of the trial (juicy material for the bored commuter), and in so doing, the pro-penalty side scores a lot of points. It does so by demolishing the vacuous argument that Williams was convicted for being a Crip instead of for committing murder. It pulls ahead by describing how careful our system of criminal jurisprudence is in determining that somebody is guilty of murder.
And this is what talk radio has been doing, at least where it comes to our most popular local drive-time hosts, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou (KFI, AM 640). John and Ken, as they are known to listeners, have the celebrity-trial shtick down pat. During the Simpson trial, they pioneered their "Hour of O.J." where they discussed the trial for a whole hour each day. Later they did extensive coverage of the Lacy Peterson murder, the Peterson murder trial, and most recently the Robert Blake trial.
Their approach is to take up each defense claim in depth in the attempt to demolish it. They go into the backgrounds of expert witnesses, discuss their claims at length, and generally do their best imitation of the Crime Scene Investigation shows.
Mostly, they like to take under consideration the sorts of things that defense attorneys say in the run-up to the trial. All the polite little smoke screens and evasions that experienced PR types are used to putting up, John and Ken love to knock down.
Recently, John and Ken have taken this approach to a whole new level, and it may be the equal of anything we have heard for sheer unmitigated offensiveness. "The Hour of Tookie Must Die" is what they call it.
In practice, The Hour of Tookie Must Die is boiler plate John and Ken, namely the endless rehashing of evidence of guilt combined with reminders about the ugliness of the crimes that were committed. John screams angrily, while Ken plays the slightly more muted role. They both support the death penalty and they make this abundantly clear.
What makes it offensive is the title. Curiously, if you go to the KFI web site, it is presented differently: "Tookie Must Pay."
Apparently even KFI wasn't willing to put it in writing.
Hypocrisy abounds. The pro-prosecution side ought to be admitting that the Los Angeles Police Department had racial issues of its own back in 1979. The save-Tookie side ought to admit that he is guilty, that he viciously murdered four people for a few dollars.
Everyone involved could start by avoiding the non sequiturs that dominate public discourse, in particular the idea that commuting Williams' sentence is justified by his celebrity status as author and anti-gang-violence mediator.
This final point is probably the least understood of all, because it goes to the issue of what the purpose of a murder sentence is. Whether Williams ultimately suffers the death penalty or life imprisonment, rehabilitation is not the goal. It may be the goal for lesser crimes, but it shouldn't be the goal when it comes to someone convicted of multiple murders. If Williams is to enjoy clemency, it should mean only that he continues to exist in that gray area that exists between death and real life, that gray area that we set aside for imprisoned murderers.
Of all the things related to this case, it is the idea promulgated through our various media that Williams' celebrity is something he should be spared over, rather than something that ought to be denied him, that is the most puzzling.
The President's defense for his Iraq war policy was made, as usual, to a captive audience of military personnel. Most of them were too young to remember, but those of us of a certain age should have been reminded of a similar proposal from an earlier era: Vietnamization. It is wishful thinking of a particularly pernicious variety, because it provides for continued hostilities without considering if remedies for obvious deficiencies even exist. A few liberal oriented internet sites made the same connection. Salon.com linked to President Nixon's speech of Nov. 3, 1969 (see http://vietnam.vassar.edu/doc14.html ) which contains these words:
"My fellow Americans, I am sure you can recognize from what I have said that we really only have two choices open to us if we want to end this war. I can order an immediate, precipitate withdrawal of all Americans from Vietnam without regard to the effects of that action. Or we can persist in our search for a just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamization if necessary, a plan in which we will withdraw all our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom. I have chosen this second course."