On December 13, Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the Crips, is set to die. He was convicted in 1981 of quadruple homicide. In the 24 years he has been in prison he has reformed his ways and dedicated his life to keeping kids out of gangs and trying to undo the damage he caused in his pre-incarceration life. He has written 10 children’s books, one of which got him nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He has started street peace initiatives, met with at-risk youth and developed a program called “Protocols for Peace” which has resulted in an ongoing truce between the Crips and the Bloods in Newark, NJ. In August he received an award for his good deeds, complete with a letter from President Bush praising him for demonstrating “the outstanding character of America.”
All of this has led Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist clerics and scholars to fight for clemency on his behalf. Clemency in this case meaning life in prison without the possibility for parole.
While I do not unequivocally and in all cases oppose capital punishment (Eichmann and Hannibal Lechter come to mind) it is painfully clear that the justice system in place in America is deeply, deeply flawed, especially with respect to the adminitration of capital punishment. Williams, who has never admitted his guilt, was tried by an all white jury within a system which is notoriously unfair to blacks and the underprivileged.
While we may never know the truth of his guilt or innocence in this matter, it is certain that from prison he has become an active member of society who is committed to doing good, saving others and correcting the mistakes of his life.
Requests for clemency have thus far been denied (making one wonder if the purpose of American “correctional” facilities is indeed correction or retribution). Currently, Williams supporters are petitioning Governor Schwarzenegger to spare him.
From the Jewish perspective of course, we believe in the power of Tshuvah. While in theory death is the punishment for no less that 36 crimes in the Torah, in reality, such strict restictions were put into place insuring that it could rarely if ever be doled out; two witnesses to the crime must verbally warn the person that they are liable for the death penalty, and that person has to acknowledge they were warned but committed the crime anyway. Furthermore, an elaborate set of rules for examination of the witnesses existed in order to decrease the likelihood of being able actually to carry out an execution. A Sanhedrin who had doled out capital punishment once in 70 years was considered a murderous Sanhedrin.
In a cover story on Stanley Williams, the Jewish Journal states that “The Mishna tells us that those appearing as witnesses in capital cases were instructed: One who destroys a single soul, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world. And one who sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world (M Sanhedrin 4:5). In other words, even when confronted with a person who is accused of horrendous crimes, we are still obligated to recognize the value and inestimable worth of every human being. We are compelled to consider the potential contribution the condemned might make if spared.”
Personally I believe that justice is being served far better by allowing Stanley Williams to continue actively keeping others from making the mistakes he did and making efforts to end gang violence. If you want to sign the petition to spare his life, learn more or read Williams writings, do so here.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” Martin Luther King Jr.