How I Changed My Mind

One Man’s Execution Convinced Me the Death Penalty Is Wrong

I used to think ‘an eye for an eye’ was fair and just, but I’ve seen enough to know it’s not

San Quentin State Prison. Photo: Jitze Couperus via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

EEvery writer writes for different reasons. Some people write to inform. Others to vent. For many, writing is a hobby. For a select few, it’s a profession. For me, writing serves several different purposes, one of which is to act as a tool that I can use to refine my ideas about the world and the institutions, philosophies, and cultures that govern it.

Next to my laptop is a stack of essays I wrote many years ago. Every now and then, I pull one out of the pile, pick it apart, and attempt to piece together a persuasive counterargument for the sole purpose of besting myself in a debate. When it comes to changing my mind about something, I’ve discovered that there is no method more suited to the task than arguing with myself. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it works for me, and I’m not one to mess with a good thing.

Over the years, I’ve won a great number of those debates. About a dozen or so years ago, after an exhausting and prolonged struggle with my own bleeding heart, I learned to embrace the concept of gun rights. A year or two later, I conquered my right-leaning brain with a potent dose of left-wing logic on the subject of a public health insurance option. I do have, however, one long-held position that I’ve never been able to argue myself away from, despite my desperate search for an excuse to abandon it: my opposition to capital punishment. And it’s all because of the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams.

Thirteen years ago, Williams, co-founder of the infamous Crips street gang, was executed after serving 24 years on death row. In 1981, he was charged with four counts of murder and subsequently convicted by a Los Angeles jury. He spent the remainder of his life behind bars at the San Quentin State Prison while his lawyers appealed his conviction. In the end, the courts refused to intervene, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declined Williams’ request for clemency. On December 13, 2005, Williams was executed by lethal injection.

Williams’ execution was controversial. In the weeks and months leading up to it, a coalition of celebrities, activists, and other supporters rallied around Williams and made a strong public push for mercy. The argument was that Williams had reformed himself, as evidenced by his anti-gang activism. He wrote and published numerous anti-gang children’s books, and his “Protocol for Peace” served as the basis of a truce between two street gangs in New Jersey.

With the help of his friend and co-author Barbara Becnel, he recorded a five-and-a-half-minute video message for a summit between the Crips and the Bloods. The message was “the hit of the occasion,” according to a New York Times article published in 2000, and brought the audience of 400 to its feet. Williams also started the Internet Project for Street Peace, which arranged for at-risk youths in California and South Africa to communicate with each other via email and online chat groups. For his efforts, Williams was nominated six times for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the President’s Call to Service Award in 2005. Neither honor, however, was enough to thwart his upcoming execution.

TThere are many excellent arguments in favor of the abolition of capital punishment. For one, it’s the only surefire way to guarantee that the system never executes another innocent person again — and I use “again” here because it is a near certainty that the American justice system has executed innocent people before and will almost certainly do so again in the future. Additionally, there are many legitimate ethical and philosophical questions regarding the notion that the state ought to be trusted with the authority to determine whether one of its own citizens deserves to live or die. However, one of the arguments against the death penalty that is seldom made, and therefore hardly ever considered, is the potential collateral damage produced by capital punishment.

I never considered this argument myself until I learned of the impending execution of Williams. Up until that point in time, I had never questioned the logic behind capital punishment at all. There is no crime more heinous than murder. The way I saw it, if you took an innocent life, you deserved to have your life taken from you. It was a simple and logical deduction based on a simple and logical interpretation of my religious upbringing — “an eye for an eye,” as the Bible says, must also mean a life for a life.

How many kids had he spared from the miseries of gang culture? How many parents had he spared from the pain of losing a child to gang violence?

But after learning about the principal reason why so many people wanted to spare Williams’ life, it wasn’t so simple anymore. After pouring hours of research into studying his story, I ultimately came to just two conclusions. The first was that he was probably guilty. That’s not to say there aren’t reasons to doubt his conviction. The witnesses on whom the prosecution relied weren’t exactly the most trustworthy folks you’ll ever meet — as was pointed out by U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson in 1998 — so I would not be terribly surprised to learn that Williams was indeed innocent of the specific charges that landed him on death row. But the evidence we have makes it very unlikely that such a day will ever come, especially since authorities have no incentive to go back and review the case.

The second conclusion I came to is that while his anti-gang efforts may indeed have saved countless lives, there was no way to quantify the success of his efforts. How many kids had he spared from the miseries of gang culture? How many parents had he spared from the pain of losing a child to gang violence? No one could answer those questions because there was no way to answer them. The absence of solid numbers that Williams and his supporters could point to as proof of the efficacy of his work surely hurt their campaign to keep him alive. The way many people saw it, his clemency would not guarantee even the slightest measure of success in the fight to dismantle gang culture, but his death might provide some small measure of closure for the friends and relatives of his victims.

On a purely emotional level, I sometimes hate myself for feeling the way I do about both Williams’ case and capital punishment itself. I have never lost a loved one to murder. I can’t relate to it. I have no desire to deprive anyone of the closure that execution might produce. But no matter how hard I try, I seem unable to budge myself from this position.

InIn Williams’ case specifically, it was the potential to save lives that inspired my opposition to his execution. I hadn’t the slightest clue whether his efforts to dissuade young people from joining gangs had been effective, nor could I even try to guess how many lives he might have been able to save down the line. It could have been a thousand. Or maybe a hundred. Or maybe zero. What I did know, though, was that if he died, so did any chance he might have to preemptively rescue future generations of vulnerable children from the realities of gang life.

That tiny piece of knowledge was all I needed. No matter how much I lamented it, my mind had been made up. The calculus was even simpler than that which had inspired my prior support for the death penalty; all Williams had to do to justify his clemency was rescue one more soul from the clutches of the culture he helped create before time snatched his life away. That’s it. That’s all it would have taken to be able to say that letting him live was worth it. That’s what I believed, and try as I might, I have never been able to convince myself otherwise.

Williams’ story exposed a major flaw in my thinking — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say his story exposed the lack of thought I’d put into the issue of capital punishment. I had always taken the virtuousness of capital punishment for granted, and never once considered that the execution of a convicted killer just might be a net negative for society. That all changed when California put Williams to death in 2005.

I’ve since spent a great deal of time thinking about the death penalty, researching the history of its use in the American justice system, and listening carefully to the arguments made by both its defenders and its critics. Despite the fact that I’ve never been able to shake the uncomfortable feelings that bubble to the surface whenever I’m forced to admit it, I don’t believe I’ll ever convince myself to go back to supporting the death penalty.

II neither celebrated nor mourned the passing of Stanley Williams. I do still believe it’s more likely than not that he killed four innocent people in 1979, and I must, therefore, acknowledge the very real possibility that his redemption was not as genuine as Williams himself would have had us believe.

I also know, however, that his words carried a great deal of weight with the young people he reached. Had he lived, he may very well have been able to leverage that influence to stunt the growth of gang culture both in California and across the nation before it reached the level it has in cities like Chicago. That alone would have been a good enough reason to let him live, in my humble opinion. And that is why I have long believed — and continue to believe — that his execution should have been called off.

Outer space enthusiast. Japanese history junkie. I write about politics, culture, and mental illness. Disagreement is a precursor to progress.

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