Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Crime and punishment

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

Albert Owens didn't have his own Web site and biopic or a roster of celebrities crying out for mercy in his behalf. He had two young daughters and dreams of making a better life in Los Angeles. But no one was there as he lay face down in the back storeroom of a Whittier 7-Eleven almost 27 years ago. And, today, he's little more than a name in Stanley "Tookie" Williams' story.

Williams has his own Web site and bio-film starring Jamie Foxx. He also has Foxx and a galaxy of stars -- Snoop Dogg, Jesse Jackson, all the usual suspects -- loudly asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to spare his life come Dec. 13. That's when the co-founder of the Crips street gang is slated to be executed by the state of California. One of his crimes: firing two blasts of his sawed-off shotgun into the back of Owens as the young father and 7-Eleven clerk lay helpless on the floor.

Williams has been on Death Row since 1981. A quarter-century. A quarter-century to appeal through state and federal courts. A quarter-century to avoid the jury's sentence and mock the whole notion of sure and swift justice. A quarter-century to become a "new man" worthy of media notice and somehow grow out of a death sentence.

In Williams' case, this "peacemaker on Death Row" has renounced his gangster past and written "children's books that warn young people about the pitfalls of joining a gang," says Williams' Web site. Death-penalty foes have nominated him for Nobel prizes -- and the nominations are now cited as another reason for Schwarzenegger to grant clemency. Because, we're told, Williams is not the man he was a quarter-century ago.

But should it matter?

Unlike other Death Row inmates seeking clemency -- say, Karla Faye Tucker in Texas -- Williams has never apologized for his killing because he maintains his innocence. His death sentence, he and his backers claim, rested on racism and lies. African Americans were kept off the jury, and prosecutors built their case on, the clemency plea states, "the testimony of claimed accomplices and admitted informants, including a notorious jailhouse informant, all of whom were facing substantial prison time and even death for various offenses. . . ."

Yet, as the prosecutors make clear in a blistering rebuttal to Williams' petition, there actually was an African American on the jury. They provide his death certificate complete with racial identification and a sworn statement from a fellow jurist. And the black jurist found Williams guilty as charged. The prosecution's case also relied on physical evidence -- Williams' shotgun -- untainted eyewitness accounts and incriminating admissions by Williams himself.

Williams had an attorney of his choosing and has appealed his case for decades. If the prosecution's case was so weak and ripe with abuse, why has Williams been unsuccessful at every turn?

Racism? Please. Here's the galling irony: Williams told one of his accomplices that he killed Owens "because he was white and he (Williams) was killing all white people." A few weeks later, Williams talked about killing "Buddaheads."

That's right, there were -- are? -- other Williams victims. Prosecutors tried Williams on another robbery-homicide in the same case. On March 11, 1979, he broke down the door at the Brookhaven Motel. He then shot Yen-I Yang and his wife, Tsai-Shai Yang, the hotel owners, and her daughter Yee-Chen Lin, who was visiting from Taiwan.

They, too, have no Web site or gauzy biopic. They, too, have -- or had -- no cast of Hollywood swells speaking up in their defense. They're now little more than names in Williams' well-polished tale. But they're important to remember. Yen-I Yang and Tsai-Shai Yang left six children and 10 grandchildren. Yee-Chen Lin left behind three children in Taiwan.

No, Stanley "Tookie" Williams is probably not the person he was a quarter-century ago. But neither, most certainly, are his many victims, living and dead.

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