Don't let California execute Stan "Tookie" Williams

By: Phil Gasper

The case of Stan "Tookie" Williams--the most famous inmate on San Quentin’s death row--has reached a crucial stage, with the state of California more eager than ever to execute him as quickly as possible.  On February 2, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned down Stan’s request for a new hearing by a vote of 15 to 9. His appeal of this decision will arrive at the U.S. Supreme Court in early May. If this is also turned down, he could face an execution date as early as this summer.

In 1971, at the age of 17, Stan Williams co-founded the Crips in Los Angeles, which rapidly became the city’s most notorious street gang, spawning imitators around the country and eventually the world. Eight years later, with the Los Angeles Police Department eager to find any pretext for getting him off the street, Williams was charged with four murders. In 1981, he was convicted and sent to San Quentin.

In prison, Williams faced hostility and racism from the authorities and eventually served several years in solitary confinement. During this time, he began to rehabilitate himself and made the decision to leave the Crips and speak out against gang violence.

During the 1990s, with the assistance of journalist Barbara Becnel, Stan wrote a series of award-winning books for school children, warning them against gangs, crime, and prison. He also set up the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages street gangs to stop fighting each other. Stan’s work has had an enormous impact. Last year, for instance, gang members in Newark, N.J. negotiated a truce based on the "Tookie Protocol for Peace," which has remained in effect ever since.

This work has earned Stan a series of Nobel Prize nominations since 2001. (I myself am proud to have nominated him for the Peace Prize four times since 2002.) It also led a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit to make the unprecedented statement in 2002 that his anti-gang initiatives made Stan a strong candidate for clemency from the governor.

Since Jamie Foxx played Stan in last year’s acclaimed made-for-TV movie Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story, many people have heard about his amazing anti-gang work. But the movie steered clear of seriously addressing Stan’s original conviction, and so far fewer people are aware that he was framed for crimes that he has always maintained that he did not commit.

The main evidence against Stan was the testimony of jailhouse informants who claimed that he had confessed to them. All of these "witnesses" were facing serious felony charges and had strong motivations to make a deal with the police to reduce their own sentences. In fact, in its 2002 ruling, the Ninth Circuit admitted that these informants had "less-than-clean backgrounds and incentives to lie in order to obtain leniency from the state in either charging or sentencing."

Since the original trial, another prisoner has come forward to say that he witnessed one of the informants being given the file on Stan’s case by members of the sheriff’s department so that he could learn details about the murders. None of the physical evidence found at the two crime scenes, including fingerprints and a boot print, matched Stan. A shotgun shell supposedly matched a weapon he had bought several years earlier, but that gun was in the possession of a couple that was also facing serious felony charges. After they claimed that Stan had confessed to them, however, the investigation against them was dropped.

To get the charges to stick, the prosecutor in the case, Robert Martin, used blatant racism. The trial was moved from Los Angeles to Torrance, a predominantly white, conservative area. All the African Americans in the jury pool were dismissed, and Stan’s case was heard by an all-white jury. In his closing argument, Martin compared Stan in the courtroom to a Bengal tiger in the zoo, and said that "in his environment" (i.e. South Central LA), he would behave like the tiger would in its "habitat."

Despite the fact that Martin was later censured twice by the California Supreme Court for his racist practices--and despite the fact that the ACLU, the NAACP, the Mexican American Legal Defense & Educational Fund and numerous other groups filed an amicus brief on Stan’s behalf--the Ninth Circuit has twice rejected the claim that his constitutional rights were violated. The only positive aspect of last February’s ruling was that there was a strong dissent from nine judges, who condemned the "blatant, race-based jury selection" in Stan’s case.

No one can have much confidence that the Supreme Court will do the right thing, so it is absolutely crucial to build a movement opposed to Stan’s execution. Everyone can help. For ideas about what you can do, visit