A tribute to Stanley Tookie Williams

Alice Kim speaks with Barbara Becnel

You produced and directed a new documentary honoring Stan’s life. What can you tell us about this new film?  

This new documentary called Tribute: Stanley Tookie Williams 1953–2005 was premiered on December 13, 2007, the two year anniversary of his torture-murder by the state of California. It’s part of a three-part documentary, and the other two parts will be unveiled in the coming anniversaries of his execution. What is intended with this Tribute film was to re-introduce the nation, if not the world, to the real Stanley Tookie Williams. In the last two months of his life especially--the media misrepresented him to excoriate who he was. 

Last year, with my friend and Stan’s friend, Shirley Neal, we staged a play that was a reenactment of the execution. We filmed the re-enactment and that becomes a part of Tribute because we want people to see what the state of California does in the middle of the night with only a few witnesses. We spend time at the memorial service where an extraordinary group of people came to talk about what they knew about Stan and what their experiences had been. There is also never before seen footage of the trip to Soweto, South Africa that Shirley and I took to spread Stan’s ashes in a small lake in Thokoza Park. It’s a very moving film about 93 minutes long. 

The second part of the series is called Bear Witness: The Execution of Stanley Tookie Williams--and will tell the story of the clemency fight to save his life. The last part will be called Justice Deferred, named after an essay Stan wrote about six weeks before he was killed, when he still had hope that justice would be served, and is going to explore the criminal justice system as it relates to Stan’s case.  

In the epilogue of the re-release of Stan’s memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, you vividly recount witnessing Stan’s execution. Later, it was revealed that Stan’s execution was botched. What do you think about the ongoing debate about lethal injection and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent hearing on the issue?

Stan paid the most horrible price--what happened to him and the way they botched his execution--but what the facts have shown about how he was tortured to death has led to the temporary moratorium on executions in this country. Because he was such a high profile death row inmate, when we learned how horribly he died, it got noticed. We learned how negligent San Quentin and other states are with their lethal injection protocol, that it’s pretty ugly and frightening. Some prisoners, if not all, wake up during the process. But they’re paralyzed and can’t move. So they die the most painful, excruciating deaths. I’m still dismayed--absolutely outraged--that Stan was tortured to death. But my feelings are bittersweet...as a consequence of Stan’s botched execution and the attention that it got--others haven’t died. Regarding the U.S Supreme Court’s hearing on the issue....I’m concerned about us getting the right ruling. They’re requiring that the lawyers demonstrate that there’s another method of killing a human being that would be less cruel and unusual. And if they can’t give a replacement method, then they’ll stick with what we’ve got. So we’ve got a sliding scale of ethics in terms of how the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be willing to interpret the constitution and its ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The reasonable response would be that if lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment, then we shouldn’t have the death penalty.  

All of the presidential candidates are steering clear of any discussion about the death penalty. Why do you think that’s the case?  

The presidential candidates of the main two parties are cowards--that’s why they’re avoiding this issue. The one time I know about when the death penalty was mentioned was in a Republican debate and Huckabee came up with some explanation of why he believed in it. When the media asked him what Jesus would do, Huckabee made a joke and said that Jesus would have enough sense not to run for office. It shows that the candidates don’t have the courage to tackle this issue and the media isn’t interested either. So they don’t even ask or press the candidates about the issue and on the rare occasion that they do, they let the candidate make a joke and move on. For the candidates I see it as cowardice. For the media I see it as callousness that they don’t care about certain classes of people in this country....The way I see it, the fight to end the death penalty is a fight to win back the soul of America.  

For more information about the efforts to keep Stan’s legacy alive and how you can help, visit www.stwlegacy.net.