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 www.tookie.com
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
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