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Defying stereotypes about death row

Review by Phil Gasper | April 16, 2004 | Page 9

Redemption, directed by Vondie Curtis Hall, written by J.T. Curtis, starring Jamie Foxx, Lynn Whitfield and CCH Pounder.

IF STANLEY "Tookie" Williams is not already the most famous inmate sitting on California's death row, he soon will be.

More than 30 years ago, at the age of 17, Williams co-founded the Crips, an African-American street gang in South Central Los Angeles. While the original purpose was self-defense, the Crips were soon involved in a bloody feud with the rival Bloods, which left scores of Black youth dead over the next few years. Tookie himself survived an attempt on his life that almost killed him.

In 1979, eager to get him off the streets, the notoriously racist Los Angeles Police Department charged Williams with four murders connected with two robberies. Although there was little evidence against him, Tookie was convicted on the basis of dubious testimony from a jailhouse informant, who claimed that Williams had confessed to him. The jury wasn't told that the informant received favorable treatment in exchange for his testimony, which should have been considered highly suspect.

For the past 23 three years, Williams has been incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, appealing his conviction.

When he first arrived, Tookie soon became a leading figure in the prison's gang culture, but after several years in solitary confinement, he went through a remarkable transformation. At some risk to his own safety, Williams rejected gang violence and decided to find a way to send a message to inner-city youth that would de-romanticize gang and prison life. He persuaded journalist Barbara Becnel, who was writing a book on the history of the Crips, to help him find a publisher for a series of books about the reality of gang life aimed at elementary school children.

At first, no one would touch the idea, but through Becnel's perseverance, Tookie's books were eventually published and were used successfully in schools and community programs around the country. From his prison cell, Williams urged rival gangs to negotiate peace agreements and set up a Web site (www.tookie.com) to spread his message further.

Winnie Mandela visited Williams in prison because of the influence of his books in South Africa. In late 2000, after Tookie's Internet Project for Street Peace helped defuse gang tensions in Zurich, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Mario Fehr, a member of the Swiss parliament. Since then he has been re-nominated for the Peace Prize and also nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Williams has come a long way since his days as a gang leader in Los Angeles. Last month he published his autobiography Blue Rage, Black Redemption. Now the FX cable TV channel has made Redemption, a docudrama about his life, starring Jamie Foxx as Tookie and Lynne Whitfield as Barbara Becnel.

Redemption is a powerful movie that won favorable reviews when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and is also due to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France in May. The film alternates between Williams' life in prison, his growing friendship with Becnel, his growing influence outside prison and flashbacks to his youth. It presents the insanity of a system that is planning to kill a man whose life is now having such a positive impact.

In one of the most touching scenes, Williams' elderly mother recalls how the young Tookie didn't want to leave Louisiana and move to California in the early 1960s. She wonders whether she made the right decision. She had hoped for a better life outside the segregationist South--only to encounter the equally brutal racism of inner-city Los Angeles.

In the late 1960s, young Blacks fought back against the racism by joining radical groups like the Black Panthers. Gangs like the Crips and the Bloods only emerged after the FBI and the police had brutally repressed the Panthers, killing or arresting many of its leaders. In a less racist world, Tookie would have become an educator or a community leader, not a gang member. And he would have had the opportunity to develop his talents as a writer long before.

Stanley Williams is coming to the end of his long appeals process. He is on a short list of people whose execution dates may be announced any time in the near future. But there is still hope. While rejecting his last appeal in 2002, the Ninth Circuit Court took the unprecedented step of urging the governor to grant clemency.

Activism by death penalty opponents stopped the scheduled execution of Kevin Cooper in early February. By allowing people to see Tookie as a real human being, Redemption can help open up the debate around the death penalty even further--and play a role in the fight to end capital punishment in the U.S. once and for all.

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