Free-Floating Hostility

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


Request for Informed Debate: Tookie Williams

I'm curious to know what our readers, and I'm thinking in particular of our lawyers and lawlets, think of Tookie Williams' execution this morning. My understanding is that it was kind of an ambiguous situation, since Williams never actually admitted to the quadruple homicide of which he was convicted, but only actually claimed innocence (or his lawyers did anyway) right before the execution. On the other hand Williams famously reformed in prison, though I get the feeling it didn't get him as far as it might have as he remained personally obnoxious, and consorted with the likes of Louis Farrakhan. Let me be clear: I never even saw the movie. I would just like to solicit all of your opinions, including whether or not it makes sense to give the final decision over to he Governor, and why media representatives are among those allowed to witness the execution, producing unpleasant accounts like this one by a reporter from the Chronicle (his sixth).

5 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Blogger Rich at December 13, 2005 12:05 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Putting aside any feelings I have regarding the death penalty, I agree with the decision made by the courts and ultimately Arnie (using information that I gathered from TV while studying for finals and from this blog entry). We punish people for many reasons including retribution, deterrence, and rehabilitation, and it seems like these considerations overall favor the resolution the courts reached.

    One argument for Tookie not to be executed was that he was rehabilitated (he was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize, but, as I heard on TV, he didn't win it). However, our country doesn't really care that much about rehabilitation, otherwise why would the only available options be the death penalty or life imprisonment?

    The most persuasive argument I heard in favor of not executing Tookie was that he did so much public good while in prison, convincing kids to not join gangs, stay in school, don't do milk, and such. However, no one has statistically measured how much Tookie has affected the public good. This utilitarian argument sounds similar to the argument for the death penalty (that it deters criminals although the numbers have not proved this to be the case). In deciding whether to execute Tookie, the court had to weigh these two unmeasurable considerations against each other. How do you decide what to do in such an untenable position?

    Well, you turn to retribution. Tookie committed a quadruple homicide. That's pretty bad. He could counter this with evidence of his repetence, but if he didn't admit to the murders and he ended up at the end claiming he was innocent, he did not show adequate remorse to rebut the retribution values, even if that is possible.

    To brief address your other points, everyone loves a spectacle, why not allow the media to be there? Having the media disseminate information about the execution arguably serves deterrence. What's wrong with having Arnie have the last say? He's democratically elected, unlike the judges.

  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at December 13, 2005 2:34 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Thanks, Rich. That pretty much confirms my impression that given the continued existence of the death penalty it seems logical for this case to have proceeded as it did.

    What I meant about the Governor is the fact that he doesn't get to hear all the evidence; thank goodness he doesn't get to overturn acquittals.

    So I guess my next question is what if we don't put aside our feelings about the death penalty? How does his story add to the debate, given that he was not a simple guy and was probably guilty? At least one of the victim's mothers wanted him to be executed in her son's name, but it looks like Williams' supporters got the last word. It seems to me like the public memory of all this is focused less on the four dead than ever.

  •   Posted by Blogger BrooklynDodger at December 13, 2005 6:47 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • No capital punishment means no capital punishment. Morality aside, it's just too much effort to justify the state killing someone. The difference between the California death machine and the Texas death machine is that the Texas conveyor belt runs faster.

    PS: the word verification sequences are getting longer and longer. ynvumctm

  •   Posted by Blogger Mike at December 14, 2005 5:51 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • State court judges are usually elected, although the final (and generally unsuccessful) appeals are usually made in federal court. That said, I agree with Rich, that it's hard to claim redemption when you don't admit to having committed the crime. Then you're just claiming to be a really good guy who lives in a really shitty neighborhood.

    I don't put much stock in the Nobel Prize nominations every year someone nominates the sport of soccer for a Nobel Peace Prize. The rationale is that it brings brings disparate and warring countries together, peacefully for a game. Of course, sometimes Angola will play its former imperialist power, Portugal, and the on-field and off-field violence will be such that the match will be stopped with 20 minutes left. What was I talking about?

    I opposed the execution because I oppose all executions. I believe the death penalty is applied selectively and politically because DAs and judges are elected at the state level, and the state of American political campaigns is such that there's little room for nuance, and therefore zero chance for a real debate. Tookie, specifically, means very little to me because I didn't see the movie.

  •   Posted by Anonymous KTA at December 15, 2005 3:56 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I'm late to the party and I didn't see the movie either, but as someone who is completely opposed to the death penalty for the reasons Mike and brooklyndodger listed above, I found this case particularly disturbing. Tookie Williams was not exactly a sympathetic character, but legal fine points aside, Arnie's basic reasoning for denying clemency struck me as an odd kind of playground justice, especially in such a serious situation: if only you'd admitted your guilt, we wouldn't have had to kill you! MAYBE!

    Also, more to the point of the anti-DP argument, I listened to the NPR account of the execution, and if some nurse jabbing at a prisoner's arm for 15 minutes looking for a vein isn't cruel and unusual punishment, then I'm not sure what is. What a way to go.

    -KTA, who does not have a blog or a hospital in the Sahara

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