By: Marc H. Morial
President and Chief Executive
National Urban League
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founder of the murderous Crips gang of Los Angeles, is dead. He was executed shortly after midnight by the state of California.
Was it justice?
Was it revenge?
What has society gained: The elimination of someone who bears responsibility for the organization of one of the most notorious gangs in American history and who himself was convicted of four horrible murders. And the elimination of someone who, from inside prison, vigorously sought for more than a decade to convince young people to renounce gangsterism and criminal activity.
Williams to the end maintained he was innocent of the murders for which he was executed.
But California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in rejecting Williams’ appeal for clemency, stated the jury’s finding of guilt has “withstood” numerous challenges and that the entire conduct of his trial “has been thoroughly and carefully reviewed by the courts and there is no reason to disturb the judicial decisions that uphold the jury’s decisions that he is guilty of these four murders and should pay with his life.”
The Governor’s statement also challenged the assertions put forward by Williams’ supporters that he had truly undergone a redemptive experience, noting both his maintenance of innocence regarding the specific murders and the lack of “explicit and direct” renunciation of the “countless murders committed by the Crips following the lifestyle Williams once espoused.”
The Williams case is worth our attention not only because of what Stanley Williams did before his trial and imprisonment and what he did while in prison. It’s important because it underscores how unfit the death penalty per se is for a modern society anywhere on the face of the earth.
The fate of Stanley Tookie Williams got all the attention this past fortnight; but while the days passed, at least three men were put to death across the nation. They included one inmate, convicted of a double murder, who became the 1,000th person executed in the United States since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977.
Their executions raise the same issues as that of Tookie Williams.
In saying this, I do not ignore the barbarity of the crimes for which all death row inmates have been convicted and sentenced. One need only read the details of a few murders to recoil in horror from the violence and from those responsible for them.
But acknowledging that brings us squarely to the host of issues that surround the death penalty.
First and foremost is the question of innocence.
Undoubtedly, the overwhelming number of the 3,500 inmates on the nation’s death rows committed the murders which put them there.
But a decade’s worth of developments—namely, the use of DNA testing and other means to challenge capital convictions and death-penalty sentences—have bolstered the contention that America’s death rows hold a significant number of people either completely innocent of the crime they were charged with or whose guilt has not been proved.
Since 1973 more than 113 death-row inmates have been exonerated and released from prison, an average of two to three a year. However, since the late 1990s when momentum of such investigations and challenges increased, 36 death-row inmates have been exonerated, including ten in 2003, the greatest number in any one year.
These spectacular cases, in which people innocent of the crime they were charged with were nonetheless slated for execution, helped underscore numerous flaws plaguing the criminal justice system as a whole—flaws whose effects become magnified in capital punishment cases.
As innumerable government and private studies have shown, imposition of the death penalty is irredeemably arbitrary—influenced by such factors as the race of the defendant and the victim, the discretion of the prosecutor, the wealth of the defendant, and the jurisdiction in which the crime occurred or the case is being tried.
Of the now more than 1,000 executions that have occurred since 1977, more than 80 percent have taken place in just ten of the thirty-eight states which have capital-punishment laws. A similar disparity in the pursuit of capital punishment often exists among jurisdictions within those ten states.
Those flaws together have led to declining public support for the death penalty and declining pursuit of it by prosecutors, especially as its alternative—a sentence of life without the possibility of parole—has become more widely applied.
A recent report in the Washington Post noted that last year death sentences fell to their lowest level since 1977: juries applied it in 125 cases, compared with an average of 290 a year in the 1990s; and the number of inmates executed last year was the lowest since 1996.
This sharp lessening of America’s mistaken attachment to the death penalty cannot help Stanley Tookie Williams or the other inmates who have been put to death with far less notice. But they do indicate that more and more people are asking the question that resounds with each death-penalty execution: What has society gained?
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