Clemency is "the historic remedy for preventing miscarriages of justices where judicial process has been exhausted.
While we are constantly being reminded of the shopping days we have left before Christmas, Stanley Tookie Williams has a far more urgent countdown, his life clock is ticking away, while he waits for California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to decide his fate. Williams is scheduled to be executed on the 13th of December by lethal injection
On November 21, I travelled to San Quentin State prison to meet Williams. When I arrived, I couldn't help wonder why they had chosen this idyllic place to build one of the most infamous top-security prisons in the nation. San Quentin is situated on prime real state, overlooking the beautiful San Francisco Bay, it was established on Bastide Day, 14 July 1852 at point Quentin in Marin County in approximately 432 acres; the first San Quentin condemned unit was established in 1893, North Block was built in 1934 and houses all males sentenced to death in the state of California. The original condemned unit was originally designed to house 68 condemned prisoners. Today, San Quentin houses approximately 6,000 prisoners, and approximately 600 death row prisoners.
The guards at the correctional facilities were cordial and polite. After being searched, I was allowed to bring in 30 dollars to buy food, and I was told not to carry phones, cameras, paper or pens. That morning the weather was beautiful and the sun was shinning as a prison guard escorted me approximately 1,000 metres to the death row unit. I had expected to meet Williams behind a barrier of glass and wire partition, as I had when I met Karla Fay Tucker and Gary Graham in death row in Texas. Instead, I was going to meet Williams face to face, he was already inside a small cell with Barbara Becnel his co-author and long-time supporter and reverend Jesse Jackson. Before I entered, Williams put his hand behind his back through a small aperture in the metal door for the guard to hand cuffs him. Once I was inside and the door was closed they removed the handcuffs, he reached out to say hello, Williams is tall and muscular -- it is visible that he was once a body builder.
He appeared calm and at peace with himself. I shook his hand and sat next to him. I had so many questions and knew my time with him was limited. I told him I had recently listened to a debate about his case on National Public Radio (NPR) and felt very disturbed when his defender had to admit that he was not willing to apologise or express remorse for the murders for which he was convicted and condemned to death. I asked him why? He answered in a calm and measured voice "I am innocent, I did not commit the crimes for which I was sentenced to death, I cannot ask for forgiveness and express remorse for a murder I didn't commit, even if by refusing to do so, I risk losing my life. I cannot lie in order to live." He looked me straight in the eyes, and said: "First and foremost, I am innocent. There was no tangible evidence that linked me to the crime -- all evidence was circumstantial hearsay from a discredited informant, a bloody foot print, an indentation from an army boot, the indentation did not match my boots, no finger print that matched mine. At first the ballistic expert declared that the shell didn't match my shotgun. The prosecutor, Robert Martin, told him to try again. This time the ballistic expert said it "was similar," but at the hearing he said it was the same.
They didn't use photomicrography to examine the shells. 'My lawyers are asking to have the shells examined with photomicrograph, to establish what the human eye cannot distinguish' ". I had a sip of water, and asked him why he thought he was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he didn't commit. "I had a nasty reputation and my reputation was put on trial. I had co-founded the street gang the Crips and had earned a bad reputation for being violent and beating up people. I was tried convicted and sentenced to death by an all white jury -- the prosecutor, Robert Martin, dismissed three prospective black jurors, because he was seeking an all white jury. He is notorious for engaging in racial discrimination. In addition, I had incompetent legal counsel."
He took a sip of his drink and went on to say in a lower voice, "I have apologised on many occasions for my crimes and I genuinely have tried to redeem myself."
How? I asked.
"I have written nine books to reach out to young people and bring them away from a life of violence and street gangs. I educated myself and became an autodidact. As you can imagine this place has little room for rehabilitation -- it was up to me to change."
"For the first 8 to 9 years I gave them hell, I spent years in solitary confinement, my redemption came by virtue of my education, it helped me developed a conscience."
His case has received widespread support among religious leaders, Nobel Prize winners, celebrities and international figures, and has further ignited the debate into America's barbaric, medieval and outdated death penalty policy.,
This was my first visit to San Quentin. However, this was not my first visit to a prisoner on death row awaiting an imminent execution, I was anguished and upset at the thought that Stanley Tookie Williams only had 22 days to live and that his life clock was ticking away. I remember having the same disturbing thought when I visited Karla Fay Tucker and Gary Graham known as Shaka Sankofa on death row in Texas, both hoped George W. Bush, then Texas Governor, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole would change their sentence from death to life without parole.
They were both executed by lethal injection.
I witnessed the shocking state sanctioned murder of Gary Graham. Across America and throughout the world people believed he was innocent of the crime for which he was executed. He was convicted and sentenced to death based on a sole eyewitness's testimony. Karla Fay Tucker drew widespread opposition to her execution because of her rehabilitation, religious conversion and her work on the "Scare-straight" programme to help adolescent drug abusers.
Stanley Tookie Williams' life depends on California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The covernor has the authority to grant a pardon if he believes Stanley Tookie Williams is innocent, rehabilitated, no longer presents a threat to society and has shown remorse for the crimes for which he was sentenced. In addition the governor can grant a reprieve to allow William's lawyer's to present a discovery motion to "seek evidence that should have been disclosed at the time of his trial but was suppressed and continues to be suppressed by the prosecution."
Stanley Tookie Williams has been in death row for nearly a quarter of a Century. In 1971 Williams co-founded the notorious Los Angeles street gang "the Crips" and in 1981 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by an all white jury. Since Williams’ incarceration, he has decried gang violence and has made great efforts to reform the violent conduct of others. He has written nine books to warn youth about the dangers of gang life. His enlightening work has touched thousands of troubled youths and many have since turned away from gang violence. To those transformed by Williams’ writings, he has come to represent a symbol of hope and purpose. For his good works, the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recommended that Mr. Williams would make a “worthy candidate” for an act of executive clemency.
Williams has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize every year since 2001. He has also been awarded the US presidential service award in 2005 for his outstanding work to benefit the country’s youth.
In his appeal before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals William argued that Robert Martin, the prosecutor, had engaged in "impermissible racial discrimination in the jury selection", Martin had removed all blacks from Williams' jury, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the US constitution. In his appeals Williams points to two California Supreme Court cases that involved the same prosecutor where his actions are at issue in People vs. Turner and People v. Fuentes, in both cases the California Supreme Court reversed the judgement, in People vs. Turner the court concluded "the record demonstrated that the prosecutor used his peremptory challenges to strike Black prospective jurors in a racially discriminatory manner for the apparent purpose of obtaining an all-White jury to try this black defendant for crimes against white victims." In the People v. Fuentes the court concluded that the prosecutor engaged in a pattern and practice of discriminating on the basis of race in the exercise of peremptory challenges"
California is embarking on an avalanche of executions right before a state senate bipartisan commission is set to examine the fairness of the application of the death penalty in the State.
The scheduled execution of Williams is but a glimpse into the broken system of justice in the State of California. Three men are on the brink of being executed by lethal injection; their convictions were based on unreliable informants, racially biased practices, and poor legal counsel.
Death sentences in California continue to rely on discriminatory practices and sub-standard legal representation. California has no formal system of proportionality review in either the trial courts or the state supreme court, and as a result, no mechanism exists to bring the issue of racial discrimination before state courts. This lack of meaningful review creates fertile ground for an institutionalised pattern and practice of racial bias.
There is little question that in capital cases, a competent attorney can mean the difference between life and death. "Often defendants are sentenced to death not for committing the worst crimes but for having the worse lawyers". Executing a person, because of the incompetence of their attorneys, instead of the gravity of their crime, only adds to the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of the death penalty. The failure of Williams’ attorney to object to the jury selection should not prejudice him from receiving relief from the courts. In his Feb. 2, 2005 dissent on the 9th Circuit’s decision to deny Stanley Tookie Williams recent request for relief (Williams v Wodford) Judge Rawlinson stated, “The trial attorney missed more than one opportunity to make that simple motion; he could have made the motion after the first strike, the second strike, the third strike, or at the conclusion of jury selection – when he knew that the prosecutor’s challenges had resulted in an all white jury. Any way you slice it, counsel’s failure to object constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, and we should not hesitate to say so.”
The California State Senate established a bi-partisan Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. The Justice Commission has two years to identify the problems in the criminal justice system that lead to wrongful conviction and wrongful execution and to make specific recommendations to the Legislature and the Governor as to what is needed to make California’s criminal justice system just, fair, and accurate. The Commission has just begun to investigate these disturbing issues,
Governor Schwarzenegger must exhibit respect for due process, it would be indefensible to execute one more person while critical questions about the administration of justice in the state of California are being reviewed by a bipartisan committee. The Governor must halt all executions until the investigation of the Justice Commission is completed.
I urge Governor Schwarzenegger to exhibit leadership and grant clemency to Stanley Tookie Williams, and commute his sentence from death to life imprisonment without parole. I hope he will recognise that it is the human capacity for change and redemption that endows us all with the potential to become better people. Killing Stanley Tookie Williams will only complete the cycle of violence and will shout out the light of redemption that exist in all of us. Governor Schwarzenegger should realise that criminal courts in the US are the institution least affected by the civil rights movement, the courts have failed, and are failing in their duty to ensure due process for all, the death penalty in the state of California is selectively applied, it feeds prejudices against minorities, the poor and those lacking political clout. The Governor should declare a moratorium on all executions in California.
Bianca Jagger is The Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador and a Member of the Executive Director's Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA