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California Case Highlights Death Penalty Debate


California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger will consider a clemency appeal Thursday from a man on death row, a convicted killer named Stanley Tookie Williams. The California case highlights a national debate over the death penalty.

Tookie Williams, 51, admits he was violent in his youth and was often on the wrong side of the law. He co-founded the notorious Crips street gang, and was sentenced to death in 1981 for the brutal murders of four people two years earlier.

His supporters say, however, that by the early 1990s, as his case was being appealed, he underwent a change. With the help of a journalist, he wrote a series of children's books to warn youngsters against gangs, weapons and violence.

Because of that, a Swiss parliamentarian wrote a letter nominating Williams for the Nobel Peace Prize five years ago. Nominations for the prize followed the next two years.

Tookie Williams is scheduled to die by lethal injection next week, and his supporters have rallied throughout the state to urge Governor Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency. No California governor has commuted a death sentence since 1967, when then-governor Ronald Reagan granted a reprieve to a brain-damaged inmate.

Supporters say, however, that if a death-row inmate ever deserved a reprieve, it is Tookie Williams. This man was among those rallying in support of Williams in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"This nation and this state will be better off with Stanley Williams alive than with Stanley Williams executed," he said.

Others are skeptical of claims that Tookie Williams has turned his life around, and they say the Nobel nominations are irrelevant. They say politicians easily make such nominations, and that Nobel judges never seriously consider many of them.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton is one of the skeptics.

"Execute him. That's what the jury indicated. Get rid of him. It's that simple," said Mr. Bratton. "Why do we want to save him? All this baloney about him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? You could nominate a ham sandwich for the Nobel Peace Prize."

The critics also say that Tookie Williams has never admitted his crimes or apologized to the families of his victims, and they say repeated inquiries have failed to produce exonerating evidence. However, his supporters question whether Williams received a fair trial. He is African-American, and his mostly white jury had no black members. Three blacks had been removed from the jury pool

A witness testified that Williams laughed as a victim lay dying, and the stepmother of one victim, Lora Owens, says the execution should go forward. In fact, she plans to be at the prison when it happens, on behalf of her murdered son and her late husband.

"In the name of Albert, and also his father, I'll be standing right there, because I'd like to finally be able to put them to rest," she said.

Most Californians support the death penalty, but many are divided on this case.

A total of 38 U.S. states impose capital punishment. The other 12 that do not support the death penalty include Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan. More than 1,000 people have been executed in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the death penalty in 1976. According to one Web site that tracks executions, 58 death row inmates have died this year.

Amnesty International says 86 countries have banned the death penalty entirely and several dozen others rarely or never impose it. The human rights organization has criticized the United States for its continuing executions. Surveys show that most Americans support capital punishment for the most serious crimes, but some polls show that support is declining.

All states have a clemency process, and Governor Schwarzenegger can issue a reprieve for Tookie Williams, if he chooses to, up to the time of execution, which is scheduled for December 13.