For changing lifestyle, former gang leader deserves chance to live

Muhammad Ali has said that a 50-year-old who sees the world the same as they did at age 20 has wasted 30 years of their life. Forgive me for beginning with an indirect quotation, but

Muhammad Ali has said that a 50-year-old who sees the world the same as they did at age 20 has wasted 30 years of their life. Forgive me for beginning with an indirect quotation, but I find those words remarkably poignant.

I am willing to wager that Stanley “Tookie” Williams would agree with Ali. Williams has been on death row since 1981 for his conviction of murdering a convenience store employee, in addition to killing two motel owners and their daughter. Before being convicted of what current Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley described as “execution-style shotgun murders,” Williams co-founded the Crips, the notorious street gang.

After more than 25 years since his crimes in 1979, two months ago, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge chose Dec. 13 as the day Williams will be executed. Having exhausted the extent of his appeals, his impending death, seven days away, is effectively under the control of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – a man Williams met three decades ago when they were both bodybuilders.

The pending execution of Williams is not unusual for his crimes, but rather for how drastically his life’s purpose has changed. In 1993, Williams began writing his first of 10 books, all of which have non-violent, anti-gang themes. In 2004, Jamie Foxx starred in Redemption, a television movie chronicling Williams’ life.

Williams has supposedly been nominated for several Nobel Prizes: four for literature and five for peace. (Nobel Prize nominations are not officially disclosed until 50 years after the nomination.) In August, Williams was given a President’s Call to Service Award, including a letter from President Bush praising Williams for holding the “outstanding character of America.” In 2002, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suggested that Williams was a primary candidate for clemency.

Despite his recent work, there is an outpouring of support to follow through with Williams’ execution. On Nov. 17, in response to a petition asking for clemency for Williams, Los Angeles prosecutors sent Schwarzenegger a 50-page plea to not intervene in the execution. In it, prosecutors called Williams a “cold-blooded killer,” undeserving of the “mercy he so callously denied” the murder victims.

Irreversible recidivism is a fundamental belief of a society that largely sees the justice system as a means for punishment, not rehabilitation. Even excluding the four murders, of which Williams continues to claim his innocence, his young life was a gross detriment to society. Yet, it is absurd to not recognize the good that Williams could do alive. It is crueler still to believe that Williams, 51, could not have changed since his imprisonment at age 25.

On Dec. 1, California’s Supreme Court refused to reopen Williams’ case, leaving Schwarzenegger with the highly unenviable task of weighing both his politically brutal choices. He can either kill a Nobel Peace Prize nominee or save a gang founder and convicted murderer. Schwarzenegger has scheduled a closed-door meeting on Dec. 8, presumably to formulate his decision.

It is important to understand that clemency will not set Williams free. Schwarzenegger has the ability to halt the execution of Williams, but keep him in prison for the rest of his life. Without intervention, Stanley Williams will die in seven days. If a criminal who has become a Nobel Peace Prize nominee doesn’t warrant clemency, I don’t know who would.

Anyone who feels that executing a criminal-turned-positive role model is irresponsible may consider e-mailing Schwarzenegger at, asking for clemency. It might be wise to ask him to contemplate the positive impact Williams can have, even if he lives the rest of his life in prison. We all change – Williams most certainly has. If he is allowed to live and continue his work, he can help more troubled kids change too.

Christopher George Wink can be reached at

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