On February 28, 1979, Stanley “Tookie” Williams and three other men drove in two cars to a 7-Eleven store in the city of Whittier, California, a suburb southeast of downtown Los Angeles. The lone clerk on duty at the time was 26-year-old Albert Owens, who was sweeping the store’s parking lot when the men arrived. Owens apparently believed the men to be legitimate customers, for he put down his broom and dust pan and followed them into the store. Williams, armed with a sawed-off shotgun, forced Owens into a back storeroom. After ordering Owens to lie on the floor, Williams fired a shotgun blast into the store’s security monitor. Then, though Owens had offered no resistance at all, Williams fired two blasts into the prostrate man’s back, killing him. When an accomplice asked Williams why he had shot Owens, Williams explained that he didn’t want to leave any witnesses. The accomplice would also later testify that Williams told him he killed Owens “because he was white and he was killing all white people.”
Williams and his three accomplices netted about $120 in cash for their efforts that night.
Less than two weeks later, at about five in the morning on March 11, Williams went to the Brookhaven Motel at 10411 South Vermont Avenue, less than a ten-minute drive due east from Los Angeles International Airport. After breaking into the motel’s office, Williams shot and killed 76-year-old Yen-I Yang and his 63-year-old wife, Tsai-Shai Yang. Next he killed their daughter, 43-year-old Yee-Chen Lin. As in the Owens killing, the murder weapon was a 12-gauge shotgun. The take in this crime was about $100.
Williams was identified as a suspect in the killings and arrested. In March 1981 a jury convicted him of all four murders and also found true the “special circumstances” that under California law exposed him to the death penalty, to wit, multiple murders and murder committed during the act of robbery. The jury recommended the death penalty, and on April 15, 1981, the trial judge did in fact sentence Williams to death.
Today Williams remains very much alive and enjoying a most peculiar brand of celebrity, the type previously heaped on men like Mumia Abu-Jamal, the unrepentant and still-living killer of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. But, while Abu-Jamal’s case languishes in the courts nearly 24 years after the murder for which he was sentenced to death, and while Abu-Jamal himself advances steadily toward the natural death that appears to await him, time is at long last running out for Tookie Williams. On October 11 of this year, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear Williams’s final appeal, and as things now stand he will be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 A.M. on December 13.
Some people, for various reasons, find this objectionable. As if mirroring the Abu-Jamal case, Williams’s supporters, including the expected sprinkling of misguided celebrities and former celebrities from Hollywood, have orchestrated a p.r. campaign aimed at sparing Williams from the fate the law has prescribed for him. Included on the Save Tookie website are sample letters to be sent to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has the authority to grant clemency and commute the sentence to life imprisonment. “You should know that I am in favor of the death penalty (in the most reprehensible cases),” reads one such letter, “and my politics are conservative–I am by no means a do-gooder liberal. However, I believe in the case of Tookie Williams . . .” Schwarzenegger has agreed to meet privately with Williams’s attorneys and representatives of the victims’ families on December 8.
The Tookie-philes now follow parallel but seemingly irreconcilable courses in their effort to save their hero from the death chamber. On one hand, Williams and some of his supporters claim he is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted. They offer the predictable assertions that Williams was railroaded onto death row by corrupt cops and unscrupulous prosecutors, both of whom were abetted by perjurious witnesses. Among those rebutting these obfuscations is Steve Cooley, district attorney for Los Angeles County, whose office has assembled a point-by-point analysis of the overwhelming evidence of Williams’s guilt.
On the other hand is the proposition that Williams has redeemed himself during his 24 years in prison, that he has renounced gang life and urged others to do likewise. He has authored children’s books, they say, warning youngsters against following in his own wayward footsteps. He has even, his supporters are quick to point out, been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. (The fact that even a crazed, murderous thug like Yasser Arafat actually won such an award has not deterred them from trumpeting said nomination.) But two questions occur: If Williams is indeed innocent, what is it, exactly, he has redeemed himself from? And, if an imprisoned Williams truly has been a courageous voice against gang violence, how is it that his admonitions went unheard within his own family? Stanley Williams Jr., 30, is currently serving a 16-year sentence in California for second-degree murder. Sometimes the apple falls very close to the tree indeed.
Such incongruities matter little in the carnival that now surrounds the impending execution. On November 19, a “Save Tookie” rally was held outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco. Among the speakers was rap star Snoop Dogg. Williams’s influence “is really rubbing off on me,” said the rapper, “and I control lots of people on the streets, and what I do right, they do right.”
So, there you have it, from no less a moral authority than Snoop Dogg. But Mr. Dogg is not so well known for having “done right” himself. He is better known to police and probation officers as Calvin Broadus, and he’s been convicted of cocaine sales and of being an ex-felon in possession of a handgun. Like Tookie Williams, he was a Crip gang member in his salad days, but unlike Williams he was able to secure a not-guilty verdict in his own 1996 murder trial, making him a model of virtue by comparison.
If Williams has indeed deterred some young men from making unfortunate choices, so much the better for him when he faces God’s judgment. But it is the law’s judgment he must face on December 13, a judgment that has been affirmed at every step in an appellate process that has now stretched on, ludicrously, for nearly 25 years. Governor Schwarzenegger’s decision will be a heart-wrenching one but a clear one nonetheless. Yes, let Tookie Williams’s life serve as a warning to others, but let his death do so as well. Let the sentence be carried out, and let justice, finally, be done.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.