Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2005/ 12 Kislev, 5766

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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A vigil of agony in California | This has been "the weekend of agony" in California. Some of it was for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and some of it for the Hollywood friends of Tookie Williams, who spent the weekend keeping a vigil at San Quentin. Some of it, lest we forget, was for the friends and family of four murdered innocents.

There was the most exquisite agony of all for Stanley "Tookie" Williams, 51, the founder of one of the most vicious gangs in America. He spent the weekend pondering a final judgment waiting somewhere beyond California.

The day before Tookie was scheduled to die, at 12:01 this morning at the tip of a hypodermic needle at San Quentin, was a day of feverish running from court to court by his lawyers. First the California Supreme Court declined to stay the hand of the executioner, saying that it found no reason to upset the verdict of the court in Los Angeles that found him guilty of first-degree murder in 1981. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently agreed, and toward the end of the day Gov. Schwarzenegger said he would let the State of California proceed with one final killing in the bloody saga of the man his gang called "Tookie."

"Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologize or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case," the governor wrote. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption."

The wistfully worded letter suggests that a confession, even one at the execution gurney, might have made a difference. But read another way, the letter suggests that the governor could have been grateful for Tookie's stubborn insistence that, in the face of the overwhelmingly conclusive evidence, he didn't do the deed.

It's a rare governor who can sign away a prisoner's life with the stroke of his pen and not feel the stain of blood on his hands. I've known several governors well, and all of them looked physically ill as execution day approached. One famous Southern governor of my acquaintance, a man with a (false) reputation for coldly calculated mischief, usually disappeared for three or four days afterward. "I had to take to the woods afterward," he once told me. "I had to be by myself, talking to God about it. I never thought I had the moral right to undo the work of the state if there was no compelling reason to undo it. But I didn't like doing what I had to do."

But for the few who seem to take an almost carnal pleasure in participating in the execution of another, even if vicariously, "capital punishment" is a messy argument. Opponents never want to talk about the crime. "We're told never to talk about the crime if we can avoid it," a one-time advocate of the Legal Defense Fund once told me. "The man on death row is invariably and typically a creep who poured lye down his grandmother's throat or stomped his girlfriend to death. We make the argument that capital punishment is not a deterrent to murder, the risk that the innocent are sometimes convicted, and the moral argument that the state should not descend to the level of murder."

Fans of the noose, the chair and the needle will sometimes argue, as certain of my correspondents have, that killing the occasional innocent is a small price to pay for keeping the mechanism of the ultimate punishment. (I faithfully forward their names to their governors in the event innocent volunteers are needed to validate their argument.)

Tookie Williams never killed his grandmother or his girlfriend, but he took the lives of innocents — the first time after taking $120 from a clerk at a 7-Eleven, and two weeks later he blew away an elderly Chinese couple and their daughter, visiting from Taiwan, at a motel in south Los Angeles.

California, the most rootless of the states, no longer competes with the likes of Texas and Virginia for dominance in the execution business. Tookie Williams was scheduled to be only the 12th person to die since capital punishment was resurrected a quarter of a century ago. Capital punishment, though still favored by a majority of Americans, is falling from favor once more, a relic to satisfy society's thirst for revenge.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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