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December 7-13, 2005

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The Byrne Report

Crack of Light


By Peter Byrne

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

THE HEATED PUBLIC debate around the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams shows us to be a divided people. While tens of thousands of decent folks protest the state-sanctioned murder of Williams—a black man who has spent half of his 51 years on San Quentin's death row—Clear Channel's talk-radio station, KFI in Los Angeles, features the daily "Tookie Must Die" hour. And then there are people in the middle, who don't like the death penalty but can't get past the horror of the crime.

Witness the Nov. 30 column by Chris Coursey in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. In it, Coursey argues that all death row prisoners should receive executive clemency, or none should—especially Williams. Coursey's bottom line is that because Williams was convicted of blowing away four people while robbing a 7-11 convenience store and a motel in 1979, he is therefore guilty. "[I]f Schwarzenegger commutes Williams's death sentence, the governor will send the wrong message." Huh? Is killing Williams sending the "right" message?

The problem here is obvious, and not limited to newspaper pundits: Anyone who believes that a guilty verdict in America means that the accused actually committed the crime needs to review the data on the scores of death row inmates who have been exonerated by DNA testing in recent years.

Remember Ruben Cantu, who was arrested on murder charges when he was just 17 and executed by Texas six years later, in 1993? As reported in the Nov. 20 edition of the Houston Chronicle, the lone witness who sent Cantu to the needle has recanted, saying he was pressured by police to give false witness. Additionally, Cantu's co-defendant David Garza, who was just 15 at the time of the killings, has sworn in affidavit that he allowed Cantu to be falsely accused of the crime and that Cantu was not with him on the night of the murders.

But perhaps the best argument against capital punishment is the story of how the judicial system mistreated Williams, according to the discovery motion his attorneys submitted to the California Supreme Court in November. You would think that no ruling body would refuse to postpone a man's execution in order to review possibly exonerating evidence. Yet the court did exactly that on Dec. 1, when it denied the motion to reopen Williams' case.

For a quarter century, Williams has maintained that he is innocent of the murders. The discovery brief shows that Los Angeles police bungled one crime scene. The crime lab screwed up the ballistics test on the murder weapon. The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Robert Martin, inveigled two career criminals to finger Williams. The main witness against Williams, James Garrett, was a prime suspect in the motel murders. The murder weapon was found under his bed. Garrett, who was not prosecuted, had considerable incentive to lie and to throw the blame on Williams, who, as a founding member of the Crip gang, was on the LAPD's short list. Another witness, Alfred Coward, admitted he participated in the 7-11 murder. He was given immunity for testifying against Williams.

(Garrett continued to lead a life of violent crime until he died in 1996. Coward is doing time for murder in Ontario, Canada. After implicating Williams, both men were treated with extraordinary leniency by the Los Angeles judicial system for commission of subsequent crimes.)

The discovery brief further details that, while awaiting trial, Williams' jailers tranquilized him with psychotic drugs, rendering him a self-described "marionette" of the prosecution, unable to competently defend himself. Williams' attorneys point out that Martin illegally eliminated potential jurors solely because they were black.

Martin also illegally withheld evidence from Williams' lawyer, they say, that could have discredited the testimony of the witnesses. In front of a mostly white jury, Martin compared Williams to a Bengal tiger in a zoo. But he could not doubtlessly place Williams at the scene of the crimes, nor could he prove that Williams—a trophy defendant if there ever was one—fired the murder weapon.

Society has nothing to lose by granting Williams the rest of his life to convince us of his innocence or continue writing socially redeeming children's books inside his concrete coffin. But we will surely kill the quality of mercy and the future of human compassion if we kill Williams because we think he did it. Williams and the rest of us share that brief crack of light. We need not rush to beckon the darkness. We must keep him alive to see ourselves.


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