Just about one month from now, at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 13, the State of California will execute Stanley Tookie Williams. He will die by lethal injection in the death chamber of San Quentin State Prison, home to the nation's largest death row. At every execution, small crowds gather outside the prison, some to protest, some to applaud. This time, thousands of people across the country — far more than is usual for an American execution — will be paying attention. Williams' story has reignited a conversation about capital punishment, galvanizing people — many of whom have never been outspoken opponents of the death penalty — to spare his life. Their ranks include a growing numbers of Jews. Indeed, the Williams case ought to force on Jews a hard look at what, exactly, our tradition says about the death penalty.
For the past 24 years, Williams, 51, has lived on death row in San Quentin. He started down the path that put him there early on. In 1971, at the age of 17, Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, co-founded the Crips. It quickly became Los Angeles', and then the nation's, most notorious street gang. In 1979, authorities charged Williams with the brutal murders, during two separate robberies, of four people who had no gang connections whatsoever: Albert Lewis Owens, a Whittier convenience store clerk in one incident; and, in the other, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin — a husband and wife and their adult daughter, owners of a Los Angeles motel. All were gunned down, execution style, in cold blood.
Williams claimed that he did not commit the crimes, but two years later, a jury convicted him and a judge sentenced him to die. While it is not uncommon for capital defendants to claim innocence, serious questions about the testimony and evidence that convicted him were raised — and rejected — on appeal. Among them, Williams alleges that his trial was unfairly moved from Los Angeles to Torrance, where all African Americans in the jury pool were dismissed, and the case was heard by an all-white jury.
But even if Williams is, as he claims, innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, let's be clear: He was, at the time of his arrest, a dangerous criminal who had done more than his share of reprehensible things. By all accounts, he had been involved in or connected to the kinds of terrible crimes for which he was tried.
But Williams' story doesn't stop there. And what followed is not merely the familiar tale of a convicted killer trying to avoid execution through legal maneuvers. In prison, Williams began to rehabilitate himself. He publicly left the Crips, a position that involved risk to his family and to himself, even behind bars. He then apologized for creating the gang and perpetrating “black-on-black genocide” stating, “I pray that one day my apology will be accepted. I also pray that your suffering, caused by gang violence, will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others. I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions.”
This was no ordinary jailhouse conversion. Williams devoted himself to fighting gangs. He spoke out. He wrote nine children's books to steer children away from gang-banging, which he describes as “banging on your own people.” One of these books, “Life in Prison” (Seastar, 2001), received an award from the American Library Association and is used in schools, libraries, juvenile correctional facilities and prisons throughout the country. Williams also recorded anti-gang public service announcements, and began meeting with young people from at-risk communities to tell them to stay away from gangs, and to describe for them the horrors of prison. He also started the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages gangs to stop fighting each other. He created a “Protocol for Peace,” a model agreement to end gang feuds, and last year, the Crips and the Bloods in Newark, N.J., signed it, ushering in a truce that has remained in effect.
This work led a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to state, in 2002, that Williams' anti-gang initiatives made him a strong candidate for clemency from the governor. This sentiment was supported by a deputy mayor of Newark, who, in a letter supporting clemency, cited a dramatic reduction in gang-related crime in his city following the signing of what is referred to as “Tookie's Protocol for Peace.”
His was too good a story for Hollywood to miss. In last year's made-for-TV movie, Jamie Foxx played Williams in “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.” Williams serves as an inspiration for a generation of vulnerable young people in our inner-cities, kids who are listening when he tells them not to throw away their lives like he did.
But the story of Williams also speaks to us as Jews. Our tradition teaches that within every person, even the worst criminal, there exists a nekudah tovah, a point of pure goodness. The Jewish obligation is to work to uncover that point of goodness, in ourselves and in others, so that it can transform us through the process of teshuvah, the radical idea that we can change, that we can always be better than we are. The concept of teshuvah holds the promise that even the most wicked cannot be defined solely by their worst acts. The divine spark always contains within it the potential for change. This is, of course, the promise of the High Holidays, and just last month, many of us sat in shul on Yom Kippur, affirming our own capacity for transformation and listening to the Book of Jonah, which teaches that no matter how terrible our acts, we are capable of changing for the better, just like the inhabitants of Nineveh.
But what about the death penalty specifically? Many American Jews, if they think about capital punishment at all, don't consider it a Jewish issue. Yet within Judaism, there's significant consensus: All major denominations of Judaism have taken stands opposing the death penalty or supporting a moratorium on executions. Getting to this point, however, has required a long, nuanced and fascinating evolution.
Biblical law mandates capital punishment for no fewer than 36 offenses, from murder to the desecration of Shabbat to talking back to your parents. Of course, neither the letter nor the spirit of this law reflects current Jewish values. More broadly speaking, Jewish tradition offers three basic rationales for a death penalty: deterrence, retribution and the restoration of balance to a social fabric torn by a terrible crime-like murder. But how do these principles apply today?
First, there is simply no evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. In fact, in each year over the past decade, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates than states that have capital punishment. And we now live at a time and in a society where retribution can be achieved by means other than capital punishment. Long prison sentences — especially life without parole — unavailable in biblical and talmudic times, can now fulfill the retributive inclination of Jewish law. At the same time, it guarantees that the ultimate nightmare — the execution of an innocent — does not occur. Finally, long prison sentences also serve to remove the murderer from society, allowing for the restoration of the social fabric that would be at risk if dangerous criminals were returned to the streets. In the Williams case, those calling for clemency are arguing that he should be spared, not freed.
The very things that make so many of us uneasy about the death penalty today also concerned the rabbis 2,000 years ago. While they could not write the death penalty out of the Torah, they erected almost insurmountable procedural and evidentiary safeguards and obstacles that essentially ensured that a Sanhedrin, a Jewish court, would never hand down a death sentence. For example, the rabbis ruled that two witnesses were required to testify not only that they witnessed the murder for which a criminal was being condemned, but also that they had warned the perpetrator beforehand that, if he carried out the offense, he would be executed, and that he accepted this warning and nevertheless stated his willingness to carry out the act.
Jewish unease with the capital punishment also informed the decision of the State of Israel not to have a death penalty except in the case of convicted Nazi war criminals. To date, despite its ongoing battle with terrorism, only one person, Adolph Eichmann, has been tried and executed by the Jewish State.
In the United States, despite decades of trying, the justice system has proven unable to create a foolproof death penalty. In Jewish tradition, this alone would be reason enough to oppose capital punishment. But the rabbis make an even more profound claim. 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. Who, at the time of his conviction in 1981, would have thought that Williams would be capable of work that, in 2001, led to him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?
Judaism also abhors an inequitable dual system of justice, especially in capital cases. The Levitical demand for “one standard for the stranger and the citizen alike” is reinforced in the Talmud (B Sanhedrin 32a) to ensure procedural fairness in capital proceedings. The fact that the death penalty in the United States disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color serves to underscore its incompatibility with Jewish values. Whether or not Williams received a fair trial and sentencing, it is horribly clear that many people, who, like him, are poor and black, do not.
My Jewish values convince me that the capital punishment system in our state and in our country is beyond repair. I could cite the example of Illinois, where a Republican governor, a man who is a conservative Christian and once ardently supported the death penalty, ordered a halt to executions. He then commuted all death sentences to life sentences. Ethically, he had little alternative after students at Northwestern University discovered that more people on Illinois' death row were innocent of the crimes for which they'd been sentenced to death than the number of people Illinois had executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.
More recently, the state of Georgia apologized for what it now acknowledges was the “grievous error” of executing Lena Baker, a black woman, in 1945. And a Missouri prosecutor just reopened an investigation to determine whether, as many now fear, the state mistakenly executed Larry Griffin in 1995. And the Supreme Court, as far back as 1987, acknowledged what we all know — that if you are poor or a person of color — you are far more likely to get the death penalty than you are if you are white or a person of means. And California's system of justice is as overburdened and flawed as that of many other states where such problems arise. So if we begin in December a Texas-style run of executions (in addition to Williams, two other death row inmates have received their execution dates) we, too, will risk killing innocent people. We, too, will create dual systems of capital justice: one for the poor and blacks and Latinos, and one for those privileged by having white skin or money.
But even death-penalty supporters are speaking up to save Williams. They, too, recognize that something is terribly wrong when a state can execute a man who is literally saving the lives of others every day that he lives.
Innocent or guilty, victim of a flawed trial or not, Williams is set to die in one month's time: a young criminal who evolved into something more, someone more than even the sum of some truly horrible crimes.
Was his transformation entirely sincere?
I believe it was. But in the end, the worth of his contribution does not depend on how much of him is truly redeemed versus how much his pursuit of good works is spurred on by his fear of death. He is now a force for good in the world, keeping others from making the same mistakes he made.
His appeals have been exhausted, and time is almost up. The only way Williams' life will be saved is if Gov. Schwarzenegger decides to spare him.
If we believe the things that we pray and the things that we say, if we are committed to the values that we claim to treasure, we do not have the luxury of complacency when confronted with what we are about to do to Tookie Williams. Because let's be clear: if the State of California executes this man, it will do so in our name. We will stand as his executioner in the death chamber next month.
Whether you are for or against the death penalty, there are two questions that we — as Jews, Californians and Americans — have to answer: Does the man deserve to die? And do we want to be the ones to kill him?
Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and part of a multifaith coalition seeking to stop the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams.