Do we deserve death?

High-profile execution of L.A. street-gang co-founder Tookie Williams puts the spotlight on the death penalty and the governor’s office

Ronald Reagan was the last California governor to grant a request for clemency, in 1967.

Between 1967 and 1992, no inmates were put to death in California, because of a series of court rulings calling the state’s execution procedures unconstitutional.

Greg Wilhoit stood at the front of a West Sacramento classroom on a recent morning, his hands shoved, fidgety, into the pockets of his pleated khakis, and began to explain how he went from believing in capital punishment to vigorously opposing it.

His five-year stay on death row had a lot to do with that change of heart.

“My nightmare started on May 31, 1985, when my wife was found raped and murdered,” Wilhoit began, looking toward the ceiling and reciting the story in transcript fashion over a class full of teenagers at Yolo High School.

Wilhoit, 51, recounted how he was arrested, tried, convicted and given the death penalty for his wife’s killing. He sat for eight years in an Oklahoma prison, five of them on death row. Thing was, he was innocent. Still, he considered the death penalty an appropriate tool.

“I’d been a proponent of the death penalty all my life,” Wilhoit told the high-schoolers, “and just because I was on the receivin’ end of a capital-punishment trial doesn’t mean it’s going to change my mind.”

His mind eventually did change, Wilhoit explained, and the catalyst was something completely unexpected.

Wilhoit and Ellen Eggers, a deputy state public defender who works death-penalty appeals, had been invited to the continuation-school classroom to speak about the death penalty. The trip was timely, and Eggers planned to tell the students about Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the co-founder of the Los Angeles street gang known as the Crips, who has sat on California’s death row, at San Quentin State Prison, for 24 years for four murders in Los Angeles in 1979. Williams is scheduled to be executed December 13.

He has asked Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency—to convert his death sentence to one of life in prison. And his doing so, more so than other such requests in recent years, has drawn attention to California’s capital-punishment system. That’s both because of Williams’ notorious status as a gang leader and because of the way he reportedly has turned his life around while on death row.

A movement that includes advocates as diverse as state Senator Gloria Romero, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and rapper Snoop Dogg is urging the governor to grant Williams clemency. His supporters say that if anyone deserves that kind of merciful gesture, Williams does. They say he would be more valuable to society alive than dead.

The governor is scheduled to hold a clemency hearing on Williams’ request Thursday, December 8.

Williams, who admits his role in founding the Crips, has in recent years denounced gangs and has co-authored, with journalist turned activist Barbara Becnel, a series of anti-gang children’s books. He has become a prison leader, tutoring fellow inmates, his supporters say.

Eggers told the class how she first encountered Williams, while visiting a client of hers on death row. And she explained how she came to oppose the death penalty.

She wasn’t always so passionate about capital punishment, Eggers said. When she took the job with the state prosecutor’s office, she had no strong feelings either way. “It just wasn’t important to me,” she said.

But then she visited death row.

“When you sit across the table with someone on death row and get to know them over the years … and it’s not that I’ve gotten to like all my clients, because some I haven’t,” Eggers said.

But she realized that putting an inmate to death doesn’t soothe the victim’s loved ones, doesn’t make society better and, Eggers says, doesn’t have a deterrent effect on other would-be criminals, according to studies.

“It’s revenge. It’s vengeance,” Eggers said. “It’s something that politicians use to show they’re tough on crime.”

She told the class about a client of hers she calls Chico, who first told her of the good Tookie Williams was doing behind bars.

“Tookie made a huge difference in his life,” Eggers said of Chico. “He taught him how to express himself. Taught him vocabulary. He said, ‘When I got to prison, ebonics is all I knew.’ He learned history, geography, math—all because of Tookie.”

Supporters say that kind of positive force means society is better off with Williams alive than dead. Snoop Dogg, himself a former gang member, told gatherers outside San Quentin last month that Williams is an “inspirator. He inspires me, and I know I inspire millions.”

Eggers emphasizes that Williams’ case makes him a perfect candidate for the executive mercy that is clemency.

“When people turn their lives around,” said Eggers, “society ought to credit that in some way.”

Senator Romero agrees. She visited with Williams for about 90 minutes in late October. The two had what she described as “a very sobering conversation.” Romero, who is opposed to the death penalty and previously had visited death row, said she believes Williams is trying to redeem himself.

“Truly, I do believe that Mr. Williams is a changed individual,” Romero said. “If we believe that clemency belongs in the judicial process, if not use it now, then when?”

That reasoning sounds similar to the one law-enforcement officials give for needing the death penalty as a punitive tool: There are some crimes deserving of the “ultimate punishment.”

“We believe it’s reserved for the worst of the worst cases,” said Jane Robison, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Corrections officials counter Williams’ supporters, arguing that he has never admitted guilt in the killings for which he was convicted, has refused to help law enforcement by dishing dirt on how the street gang he founded operates and is simply playing the system the way all cons do. The Los Angeles County district attorney also opposes clemency for Williams, saying that focusing on what Williams may have accomplished in recent years ignores the four callous murders and the lives of the victims.

When the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reviewed one facet of Williams’ case in 2002, justices suggested that although the scope of their review was limited, Williams was a good candidate for clemency. At least, that’s the way Eggers read the ruling, which read in part, “Although Williams’ good works and accomplishments since incarceration may make him a worthy candidate for the exercise of gubernatorial discretion, they are not matters that we in the federal judiciary are at liberty to take into consideration in our review of Williams’s habeas corpus petition.”

Williams had asked the California Supreme Court to force prosecutors to turn over additional evidence in the 25-year-old murder case—evidence he believed would prove his conviction unconstitutional. Last week, that court denied that last-ditch legal request, shifting the focus back on the governor’s office.

Schwarzenegger has admitted in interviews that deciding whether to grant or deny a request for clemency is the most difficult thing a governor must do.

“It’s never a fun thing to do, let me tell you,” the governor told reporters during his recent trip to China, according to a transcript of the interview provided by his office. “This is kind of the toughest thing to do when you’re governor, because you’re dealing with someone’s life. … And so I dread that situation, but it’s something that’s part of the job, and I have to do it.”

A spokeswoman for the governor said that he has, in the past, indicated that he supports the death penalty.

Romero, D-Los Angeles, a death-penalty opponent who is advocating clemency for Williams, said she is hopeful that Schwarzenegger will perform an act of mercy.

“I believe this governor believes in redemption,” she said.

Schwarzenegger has twice before denied clemency requests—those of Kevin Cooper, in January 2004, and Donald Beardslee, executed in January this year. Those two cases were hardly as high-profile as Williams’.

Back in Barbara Danzinger’s class at Yolo High School, she explained why she’d invited Wilhoit and Eggers to speak. “I teach a government class,” she said. “We started the year talking about Roe v. Wade.” And, she said, she wanted to take students from where government starts to affect our lives to where it stops.

She made it clear to the students that they would hear a very one-sided argument from the anti-death-penalty advocates.

Wilhoit, still standing, hands in pockets, came around in his story to how he experienced a change of heart about the death penalty. While on death row, he said, he’d become friends with Charles Coleman and Roger Dale Stafford, two convicts who, between them, were responsible for 13 murders. While Wilhoit was there, Coleman’s execution date came up.

“I didn’t really think it would bother me,” Wilhoit said. “At one minute after midnight, they were counting down on TV like New Year’s Eve. At 12:11 a.m., I was overwhelmed with grief. It happened in the blink of an eye. … The world was not a better place, the sun certainly wasn’t going to shine any brighter because my friend Chuck was put down like a diseased animal.”

As for Wilhoit’s murder case, with a decent appellate lawyer, he was able to show through forensic evidence that it was impossible that he was the person who killed his wife. In 1993, Wilhoit was released from prison. The very next day, he says, he headed west, not stopping until he reached a friend’s place in Sacramento.

At its conclusion, Wilhoit’s story appeared not to sway Danzinger’s students. Two friends on opposing sides of the argument walked out of class, minds unchanged.

Israel Mosqueda, 18, who described himself as Christian, said he already shared Wilhoit’s point of view. “I believe that two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said.

But his friend Harley Skinner, 16, said he supports the death penalty in cases where it can absolutely be proven that the convicted person is guilty. “I got that whole ‘eye for an eye’ thing,” he said.

When asked whether cases such as Wilhoit’s—in which an innocent person may accidentally have been put to death—changed his view, Skinner shrugged his shoulders.

Another student raised her hand to ask Wilhoit a question. “Do you think you were freed for a reason?” she asked quietly.

“I do,” Wilhoit replied. “That’s why I devote myself to talks like this one. I try to tell people the truth about capital punishment.”