At 12:35am on Tuesday December 13, 2005, prisoner number C29300 was pronounced dead. The twelfth man to be executed by the state of California since the death penalty was reinstated in 1992, this prisoner had garnered the attention of the international media and had become an unlikely poster-child for opponents of capital punishment. The burly convict entered the execution chamber one minute before midnight, and cooperated with the guards as they removed his shackles and strapped him to the table.
The thirty-nine witnesses watched anxiously as a medical technician struggled for eleven minutes to find a compliant vein in his muscle hardened arms in which to insert the second catheter–the dreaded conduit of the lethal poison. Once the catheters were in place, the execution team injected sodium penotothal, and by 12:20 the prisoner had lost consciousness. At that time, unseen participants behind a closed wall administered the pancuronium bromide to asphyxiate the victim, followed by a lethal dose of potassium chloride to ensure that his heart will never pulsate again. Fifteen minutes later, prisoner number C29300 had silently slipped into the sleep of death. Of course prisoner C29300 had a name–he was Stanley Tookie Williams.
Better known by the middle name that he shared with his father and one of his sons, Tookie had been sentenced to death in 1981 for the murders of convenience store clerk Albert Owens, 26, and motel owners Yen-I Yang, 76, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 63, and their daughter Yee-Chen Lin, 43. However, his notoriety was garnered more from his role as co-founder of the notorious street gang known as the Crips than for the murders he is alleged to have committed.
Indeed, many who supported his execution appear to have held him responsible for the countless murders, rapes, robberies, and drug related crimes committed by the thousands of gangsters who terrorize inner city communities. This is evident in a report presented to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office which reveals the following:
“Although Stanley Williams is not directly responsible for every gang crime committed today, he was an integral founding member of a gang that has contributed, and continues to contribute, to the gang problem with devastating force. This plague on our society continues to spread, and continues to take lives on a daily basis. Williams unleashed this violence in no less a manner than if he had released a deadly virus into our communities.”
Whether or not Williams’ consistent insistence on his innocence is consonant with the truth, there are some who will maintain that justice was served on December 13, 2005.
Many of those who advocated clemency for Mr. Williams passionately expressed their belief that the one time proponent of violence had experienced redemption. In fact, the very document the District Attorney used to support the decision to execute bore witness to a transformation. Intended to paint him as an incalcitrant felon, the report inadvertently depicts him as a person whose acts of violence ceased in 1993. Interestingly, in a March 2001 editorial in The Final Call, Williams pointed to 1993 as the year he “rediscovered [his] humanity through the knowledge of God, culture and self….” He sensed the journey to transformation occurring during a seven-year stint in solitary confinement when he was forced to reflect on his past. In a November, 2000 interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he spoke of a gradual and permanent change and joked that it was not a “crash diet” type experience–referring to those jailhouse religious experiences that are often short lived.
Following his conversion, Williams devoted his time and efforts to community reform. His autobiography and celebrated series of children’s books attempt to steer youth away from the destructive gangster life and encourage them to make positive choices. The proceeds from the books are earmarked for anti-gang programs, one of which is the Internet Project for Street Peace that provides chat rooms for at risk youth across the globe to discuss their struggles and find solutions to violence. Tookie’s new direction has had such a noticeable impact on youth that it earned him nominations for Nobel prizes in peace and literature. Indeed, it is the fruit of his apparent “redemption” that inspired his supporters to lobby for his life.
Despite his post-redemption accomplishments, the State of California upheld the letter of the law and–through the designated execution team–took Tookie’s life on that terrible Tuesday. I am not going to offer an opinion on whether Mr. Williams deserved to die. God fearing people and other members of society will always be conflicted over the ethics of capital punishment. The fact is that Stanley Tookie Williams no longer breathes, and his eternal fate lies in the hands of the only Entity capable of judging the authenticity of his salvation–the Spirit who searches souls.
As Mr. Williams awaits the eschatological judgment, the real question for those of us who remain in the realm of life is not whether he deserved to die, but whether we deserve to live. It’s easy to cast judgment on a person with a history of reckless behavior, but we often forget that our communities are also destroyed by those who neglect the weightier matters of the law: “justice, faith, and mercy” (Mt 23:23). Some of the worst criminals in our society are not those who are actively involved in destructive activity, but those who passively refuse to get involved. In our sin-drenched world, there is no room for moral neutrality. Wherever we may find ourselves in life, each of us has a responsibility to be an agent of positive change–the alternative is obvious.
As we take lessons from Tookie’s life, my prayer is that we will all imbibe the sentiment of Alma Bazel Androzzo’s famous gospel song: “If I can help somebody as I pass along; if I can cheer somebody with a word or a song; if I can show somebody he is traveling wrong, then my living shall not be in vain.” As you allow the Spirit to transform these words into action in your life, never forget that “a tree is known by its fruit.”
Keith Augustus Burton is coordinator of the Center for Adventist-Muslim Relations at Oakwood University.