Stanley 'Tookie' Williams
I looked for a thread about this here, but never found one. I know we've had numerous capital punishment threads, but what the hell: Stanley "Tookie" Williams was executed earlier today after Governor Shwarzenegger refused to grant him clemency. Upon hearing of Schwarzenegger’s clemency denial for "Tookie", Reverend Jesse Jackson rightly responded with outrage. However, his basis for anger raises some troubling questions for capital punishment in America. Jackson told the press that Tookie had "earned his clemency." In fairness to Reverend Jackson, many Tookie supporters feel the same way. After all, Mr. Williams has spent a great deal of his jail time writing children’s stories and advocating for an end to gang-violence--activities that have led to his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize on five different occasions.
All of this, however, misses the point.
For Governor Schwarzenegger to grant clemency on the basis of redemption, America’s capital punishment system would become predicated upon factors such as social worth and personal transformation. Would a death row prisoner receive clemency if he found God and ministered to other prisoners? How about a prominent professional who continues to provide invaluable advice to the outside corporate world? An inventor, novelist or painter on death row? Whose contributions are worthy of redemption, and are we comfortable allowing the government to decide? Tookie’s case is more than an isolated tragedy; rather it highlights the broad structural problems with capital punishment in America.
As Sister Helen Prejean once wrote, "Every person is worth more than their worst act." The display of activists supporting Tookie demonstrates that we can and do find worth and redemption in even the most violent murderers. Of course, the victim or victims have been deprived of living out the rest of their lives. Yet, something is awry when we choose to extinguish the remaining value inherent in a person in order to satisfy a fleeting--if at all nourishing--sense of vengeance.
Balanced against these momentary feelings of retribution and finality due to the victim’s friends and family--and perhaps society itself--must be the terrible feelings of loss and suffering by the family and friends of the convicted. The retribution is not symmetrical. The father and mother of the condemned did as little to 'deserve' the loss of a child as the parents of the victim did. To family, friends and, as we have see in the Tookie case—society--, the convicted men and woman in this country retain worth and social importance. These feelings of misery and loss inflicted upon involved, yet innocent family and friends impacted by the State of California’s execution of Tookie Williams simply cannot be justified by the victims’ families right to retribution.
Add to mix the fact that the system simply gets it all wrong sometimes--164 exonerated death row inmates as of December 12, 2005--, and I have a hard time finding the social value in capital punishment. As a country, the US needs to reflect on the "difficult and unusual" circumstances of the Tookie case in order to evaluate just how far the distance is between Tookie’s situation and the situation of other inmates on Death Row. If American society cannot find sustainable reasons to uphold a practice barred by the rest of the industrialized world--a practice that is costly in every sense of the word--then it must, as a society, demand change.