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The Popularity Of Unforgiveness

by Bob Burnett

Another Execution Over A Questioned Crime

What does the U.S. have in common with China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia? All four countries support the death penalty. And, account for most of the world's executions. America's membership in this macabre club is an indication that the focus of our prison system is on punishment. The pending execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams is yet another example of this.

Tookie Williams is typical of the hundreds of inmates currently on America's death row. Except for one thing. He is famous. Williams was a cofounder of the LA street gang, the "Crips." In 1981 he was convicted of murdering four people in two robberies. Tookie has been in prison, awaiting execution, for half of his life. In the nineties, Williams began counseling youngsters, through books and recorded messages, to avoid gang life. He became a minor celebrity. The focus of a 2004 TV movie starring Jamie Foxx.

Because of his notoriety, Williams has celebrity friends who lobbied California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for clemency. If Arnold doesn't intervene, today, Tookie will be executed on December 13th.

Over the past 30 years the focus of America's prison systems shifted from rehabilitation to punishment. Being "tough on crime" proved to be a winning issue for Republicans. First they aroused the electorate by exaggerating the threat of violence. Next they played the fear card. Then they promised to send the convicted away for long prison terms. Or, to kill them. Periodically they execute an inmate and turn this into a public spectacle.

This cynical system worked for the GOP. The public identified them as tough on crime. They received huge contributions from lobbyists representing prison guards and contractors who specialize in penitentiary construction. Republicans benefited from the narrow focus on retribution. But not the common good.

America's emphasis on punishment produced an alarming statistic: the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Higher even than Russia with its notorious Gulag system. One in 37 of our adults are in prison. People of color get incarcerated at much higher rates than do whites: a black man has about a one in three chance of going to prison during his lifetime; a white guy, one in seventeen. And there are other onerous side effects. Sometimes our relentless focus on retribution kills innocent people.

In January 2003, Illinois Governor, George Ryan, issued a blanket clemency for all death-row prisoners. He cited problems in the Illinois judicial system. An investigation had found thirteen inmates wrongly convicted. Meanwhile, the advent of DNA testing produced a number of last-minute exonerations. Sadly, it has proved that several executed men were innocent.

Paradoxically, America's punishment system hasn't had much impact on our homicide statistics: We continue to rank among the world leaders in terms of the numbers of murders -- currently 8th. The U.S. has a homicide rate that is five times greater than European countries, which do not have the death penalty. We have more violent crime than other first-world nations.

Which brings U.S. back to the fate of Tookie Williams. He claims that he is innocent. He was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence, primarily the testimony of witnesses of questionable veracity. Nonetheless, Appellate Courts determined that he had a fair trial. One victim's daughter feels that Williams should be put to death. A victim's brother says that it's okay with him if Tookie's sentence is commuted to life imprisonment. Now Williams' fate rests with Governor Schwarzenegger. Has Tookie been rehabilitated? Or does retribution win the day?

In his bestseller, "Our Endangered Values," Jimmy Carter blames the shift from rehabilitation to punishment on the rise of American fundamentalism. He describes fundamentalists as saying to the convicted, "I am right and worthy, but you are wrong and condemned."

Of course, America is an overwhelmingly Christian Country. And, Jesus of Nazareth had straightforward teachings about killing: "Do not murder." "Do not take revenge on someone who does you wrong." "Love your enemies and pray for those who mistreat you." "Blessed are the merciful." Jesus would not approve of the fundamentalist position on capital punishment.

Nonetheless, the death penalty is legal in California. That doesn't mean that it is an effective measure. Or fair. Or that it is consistent with the teachings of Jesus.

Woven into the social fabric of America is the notion of justice for all. Republicans, swept away by a fundamentalist tsunami, have changed this to "Justice for some." A subversion not only of Jesus' teachings but also of the morality of our nation's founders.

Granting clemency to Tookie Williams would be an expression of justice. It's consistent with Jesus' admonition of mercy to change Williams' sentence to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Sometimes being "tough" means showing compassion. Doing the right thing. This is a chance for the Governator to demonstrate how tough he really is.

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist.

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Albion Monitor December 12, 2005 (

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