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Stan "Tookie" Williams' case:
Injustice exposed

May 27, 2005 | Page 5

THE STORY of California death row prisoner Stan "Tookie" Williams' life is one of self-transformation--from founder of the notorious Crips street gang in Los Angeles to an author of books designed to convince young people to stay away from gangs. But the state of California is set on extinguishing that life. SARAH LEVINE tells Williams' story.

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THE STATE of California wants to execute Stan "Tookie" Williams.

In February, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Stan's request for a new hearing. His lawyers will take his appeal--Stan's last chance to prove his innocence--to the U.S. Supreme Court next. If this is turned down, he could face an execution date later this year.

Stan Williams co-founded the LA street gang the Crips in 1971 at the age of 17. By 1979, the Crips had grown from a local gang to an organization with members spread across California and imitators around the country and the world.

Eager to get Williams off the streets, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) charged Stan with four murders. Stan has always maintained that he was innocent of committing these murders. His conviction was based on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of several witnesses who were felony offenders testifying in order to lessen their sentences.

In 1981, Williams was convicted and sent to San Quentin's death row. There, he embarked on a journey of redemption. He made the decision to break away from the Crips and speak out against gang violence.

The Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence book series for elementary school children was the first of his projects to try to discourage young people from joining gangs. "Don't join a gang," he tells children in his books, writing from his San Quentin cell. "You won't find what you're looking for. All you will find is trouble, pain and sadness. I know. I did."

Williams writes about gang warfare, the importance of education and the harsh reality of prisons--during his time in San Quentin, he experienced racism and abuse from prison guards and served several years in solitary confinement. He also set up the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages street gangs to stop fighting each other. Last year, gang members in Newark, N.J., negotiated a truce based on the "Tookie Protocol for Peace."

The combination of these efforts earned Stan a series of Nobel Peace Prize nominations. And in 2002, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court argued that he would make a strong candidate for clemency from the governor.

Many readers might know Williams from the FX cable network movie Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story, starring Jamie Foxx. This movie does a good job of telling the story of Williams' early life and his transformation.

But it didn't address how Williams was framed by the LAPD, which used tactics that are all too familiar in California capital cases--circumstantial evidence, "jailhouse snitches" and no investigation of material leads. Uninvestigated material evidence found at the murder site included fingerprints and a boot print that didn't match Williams. A shotgun shell found at the scene supposedly matched a weapon that Williams had purchased several years earlier. But the weapon was actually in the possession of a couple who were facing other felony charges--and who testified against Williams.

Prosecutor Robert Martin won a conviction in large part by moving the trial from multiethnic LA to the predominantly white city of Torrance and dismissing all the African Americans from the jury pool, forcing Williams to testify in front of an all-white jury. Martin was later censured twice by the California Supreme Court for racist practices. Despite this reprimand and an amicus brief filed on Stan's behalf by the ACLU, the NAACP and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Martin is still prosecuting Stan's case.

In February, a federal appeals court backed Martin for a second time, voting 15 to 9 to reject the idea that Williams' constitutional rights were violated. However, the nine dissenting judges condemned the racism in Williams' case, calling it "reprehensible and unconstitutional" and warning that the ruling allowed prosecutors to use racist tactics "with impunity."

Williams is coming to his last appeal, and his execution date could be set later this year. We have to organize to expose all the injustices in his case to tell the state of California: we're standing up for Stan Tookie Williams!

For information about what you can do to join the fight for Williams' life, visit

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"A modern lynching tool"

BARBARA BECNEL is a journalist and activist who has worked closely with Tookie Williams for 12 years, co-writing his children's book series and co-producing the movie Redemption. She is executive director of the Neighborhood House of North Richmond, Calif., which provides neighborhood youth programs, counseling, medical services and educational programs. SARAH LEVINE spoke with Becnel about Williams' case.

WHAT IS going on with Stan's appeal?

MOST RECENTLY, [Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O'Connor granted Stan a 30-day extension to prepare his final appeal. The California attorney general's office then has 30 days to respond, which will drag us into the summer recess. So Stan's case is due to be in front of the Supreme Court some time in the fall.

This is Stan's last appeal--his last chance to prove not only his innocence but the racist tactics that were used to put him on death row.

The prosecutor in Stan's trial was District Attorney Robert Martin. Martin's career shows a pattern and practice of discriminating against Black and Latino males. If he had the option of prosecuting a white defendant or a Black or Latino defendant for murder, he would invariably choose to prosecute the Black or Latino male. Then he would maneuver the defendant from downtown LA, which is ethnically mixed, to the white, conservative town of Torrance, Calif., and have the trial there.

In Stan's case, Martin successfully maneuvered the trial from LA to Torrance and then made sure that three Black jurors who made it into the jury pool were kicked off.

Then, in his closing arguments, Martin asked the all-white jury to consider looking at Stan's trial as if they were "visiting the San Diego Zoo," and to see Stan as the equivalent of a "Bengal tiger." If allowed to go back to the Black community in LA, he would be comparable to "a wild animal" returning to his "natural habitat."

In its most recent ruling against Stan, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said all of this is okay. On February 2, they ruled against Stan's request to investigate whether Robert Martin violated Stan's rights to a racially neutral jury. This ruling implies that it's okay for any U.S. court to dismiss and ignore discrimination in case trials. Not since Plessey v. Ferguson have we seen racism like this allowed in our criminal justice system.

The U.S. is going around the world touting our morality, but this is an amoral ruling. We need to stand up and say it is wrong to kick minorities off jury pools and discriminate in court.

WHAT ROLE does racism play in the criminal justice system more broadly?

FIRST OF all, racism plays a role in which crimes draw capital sentences. In Stan's case, he was convicted of killing non-minorities. The percentage of people who end up on death row for killing non-minorities is significantly higher those convicted of Black-on-Black crime or white-on-Black crime. Statistics clearly show that the criminal justice system values white lives over Black or Latino lives.

Secondly, who is targeted for capital punishment is a conscious decision made on the part of prosecutors. Prosecutors get to determine whether a particular case warrants being a capital case or a lesser charge. It's a selection process, and a disproportionate number of minorities are charged with the death penalty.

Thirdly, prosecutors base their careers on getting the easiest guilt verdicts. The accused with no money to hire decent lawyers are more likely proven guilty.

Any way you look at it, race, class and poverty play a role in who gets tried for a capital case and who ends up on death row. Look at Robert Blake. After his trial he said, "I had the freedom to go broke. It cost me $10 million to win my murder case."

WHY IS the fight against the death penalty important?

THE CRIMINAL justice system, including the death penalty, is the last bastion of institutionalized racism in this country. But our government chooses not to deal with it.

A few decades ago, we won civil rights, and we forced our government to acknowledge that racism was real. We even got them to fix some of the problems, like segregation of schools in the Brown v. Board of Education case. However, today the government refuses to even acknowledge--let alone lift a finger--to stop the racism that riddles our criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system has always been the vehicle to control people of color. This tracks back to slavery. There is an underlining fear whites have. They knew slavery and Jim Crow was wrong, and now they want to protect themselves against the repercussions.

The criminal justice system is serving as an official genocide mission, and the death penalty is a modern lynching tool. The government refuses to invest in any social services, which they see as a failed social policy. So the only other option is to lock us up or kill us.

Working with Stan has completely awakened me from a naïve middle-class view of the criminal justice system. While I never believed in the death penalty, I believed in the justice system. But I've learned through personal experience as well as secondhand from Stan that the criminal justice system is inherently racist.

On the bright side, the criminal justice system has made an activist out of me. We are going to win Stan's case, but I'm not stopping. They created me. Now they'll have to deal with me.

Stan wants to fight for justice. He has always maintained his innocence, and he says if they have evidence against him, bring it on. But don't win by conducting a racist, unjust trial.

Grassroots activists need to get involved in the fight because it is a fight for all of our rights. Our leaders are elected officials--they care about their political futures, and it is the people who have control over their careers. It is important for death penalty activists to raise hell about the rolling back of our civil rights. Staying silent will only guarantee the miscarriage of justice from a system that is rotten to the core.

It is time for the American public and the civil rights movement to acknowledge this fight and make our leaders care. People need to stand up and say, "No more!"

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