Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I'll be honest, I don't know if Stanley "Tookie" Williams is innocent or not. There are strong indicators that he may have been innocent of the crimes for which he was tragically executed early this morning, although he was certainly guilty (by his own admission) of other acts of violence and for inciting others to the same as the founder of the Crips. But I do know that this was a man who had turned his life around. Tookie had become a leading spokesperson against gang violence, a man who had a real-world perspective, and could command a respect and legitimacy with inner-city youth that few others could. I can honestly say that I think that the world has become a worse place because of Tookie's execution and not simply because the state's killing diminishes it and diminishes each and every one of us. No, Tookie Williams had become a positive force in the world. A voice of peace and non-violence. A voice that is now silenced. And yet Governor Schwarzenegger could think of "no reason" that this man might be worthy of clemency. I'm afraid this speaks of either a severe lack of perspective or cold-heartedness.

One of the reasons the Governor found to deny clemency was Tookie's lack of remorse for his murders. This of course brings us back to the issue of his innocence. How can a man feel remorse for a crime he did not commit? We have already seen how our justice system can sentence the innocent to death. Since the death penalty's re-emergence over 120 people have been sentenced to death and only later exonerated. And, as Tookie's case may well demonstrate, there is no way that we can be sure that all the innocents have been found. It is likely that some are being executed. In Texas, new evidence has arisen suggesting that Ruben Cantu, executed in 1991, was innocent. Here in Tennessee we have several men sitting on death row, most notably Paul House, who have strong claims to innocence.

So why does it happen? There are, of course, any number of factors involved, lack of adequate counsel, prosecutorial misconduct, etc. that play a role, but we also have to face up to the fact that our criminal justice process often makes it more likely that an innocent person be executed.

To begin with, the death penalty is often used as a threat to get a defendant to agree to plead guilty for a lesser sentence. And this makes sense, as long as the defendant is actually guilty. An innocent person is far less likely to plead guilty to a charge of murder two, for instance, if they know that they did not commit any murder whatsoever. Moreover, an innocent defendant tends to worry a lot less about their case. There is, for some reason, a faith in the justice system, a feeling that, since they know that they are innocent, all they have to do is show up, tell their story, and that will be it. Unfortunately, that is not how our system works. Finally, innocent people appear remorseless. How could they not? They didn't do anything? Yet to juries, judges, and Governors alike, they seem cold, hard-hearted people, making them more likely to be sentenced to death in the sentencing phase of a trial and then less likely to be granted clemency. Stanley "Tookie" Williams is only the most recent example of this dangerous system that says that it is more important that it is better to be rich and innocent than poor and guilty. Unless our country once and for all turns away from killing, I am sorry to say that we will see the death of more innocents.
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