Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Tookie Williams

by Gerald D. Coleman, S.S.

Stanley Tookie Williams is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison on December 13, 2005.While he has always maintained his innocence, he was convicted for the shotgun murders of four people in the Los Angeles area in 1979. The first murder was of Albert Owens, a clerk at a Whittier 7-Eleven. Owens was ordered to lie face down and was then shot twice in the back at close range with a 12-guage shotgun. Accomplices and friends said that Williams bragged about this shooting and imitated the noises Owens made as he died. The second murder, 12 days later, was of the owners of the Brookhaven Motel, Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, and their daughter Yee-Chen Lin. One hundred dollars was stolen.

Along with Raymond Washington, Williams formed the vicious Los Angeles Crips gang in 1970. This gang is now active throughout the United States and other countries around the world. The Los Angeles District Attorney wrote that "this gang is responsible for the regular commission of crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, and drug sales."

On Death Row, Williams has co-authored with Barbara Becnel ten books, many of them aimed at children, laying out the evils of gangs. He has spoken by phone at anti-violence summits and has given his name to an Internet peace project that links disadvantaged youths around the world.
His first series of books was published in 1996. In 1997 he launched the website. In 1998 he published Life in Prison and in 2000 the Internet Project for Street Peace. His autobiography, Redemption, was made into a movie and released in 2004 staring Jamie Foxx.
His books have been used in a number of classrooms around the country and elsewhere. His autobiography is used in 25 Chicago public schools with at-risk students. His Tookie Speaks Out series is aimed at elementary school children and uses language and glossaries explaining gang words such as homeboy (friend/partner), mobbing (large numbers of kids pushing to get what they want), and enemy (someone who wants to hurt you).

Because of his books, Williams has been nominated five times since 2000 for the Nobel Peace Prize. UCLA Professor Jorja Leap supports such a recognition: "He is a role model for people who are thinking about leaving the gang life. He has credibility because he lived that life. The books are a building block in their survival." Alfonso Valdez, an expert on California gangs, agrees, "Kids consider him a demigod, a very high-ranking gang member. That means they listen to him." One college professor said, "I like the fact that he has made a change. My goal is to keep kids in education and on the straight track." At this writing, Williams is pleading for clemency due to his efforts to keep young people from following him into gang life.

A round-the-clock vigil began on December 4 at the gates of San Quentin.

Should Williams' life be spared? Albert Owens' daughter says no: "I don't think it's fair that he gets to breathe and walk around, and my father, whose only crime was showing up for work, can't do these things." The case has caught attention from high-profile people calling for clemency including Jesse Jackson, rapper Snoop Dogg, Jamie Foxx, Bianca Jagger, and the NAACP. For them, Williams' life has value for what he has accomplished.

I believe that both of these positions are misguided.

A person's life does not have value because of what he has accomplished or how many youths he has positively influenced. A person does not lose his inherent value on account of his crimes and their aftermath. This type of thinking leads to a moralism that places value on a human life due to one's abilities, awareness, and creativity.

A person has value because he is made in God's image. Nothing he does or accomplishes gives or takes this away. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the cases for execution today "are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (no. 2267) This position is not merely pragmatic. John Paul II made it clear in Evangelium Vitae (no. 56): punishment ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender.

Why? Because of his high-profile supporters? Because of his books and films? Because of his accomplishments? No.
Williams should not be killed because he is God's son created in God's image. All other reasons for pardoning him are secondary to this one.

Gerald D. Coleman is a Sulpician priest and moral theologian, past president of St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., and a participant in the Theological Ethics Reading Group at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Dec. 5, 2005

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