Hollywood actors, musicians, church leaders and death penalty opponents staged protests and vigils across the US on behalf of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, founder of the Crips street gang who faces execution in less than two weeks unless the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, can be persuaded to grant him clemency.
The outpouring of support for "International Save Tookie Day" yesterday underlined the controversy surrounding Williams's death sentence and suggested that his execution, if it goes ahead, could be the most contentious judicial killing in America in years.
While police and prison officials say Williams is a cold-hearted murderer who deserves to die, his supporters believe he is a poster-child for rehabilitation. Not only has Williams publicly renounced his gangland past, he has written a series of books over the past decade urging disadvantaged children to steer clear of gangs and devised a protocol for ending urban street wars, which has been successfully applied in several countries. His cause has been championed by Nobel laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, politicians including the popular former governor of New York Mario Cuomo, rabbis, nuns and a long list of Mr Schwarzenegger's fellow entertainment celebrities including Harry Belafonte, Elliott Gould, Ed Asner, Jackson Browne, Susan Sarandon and Ted Danson.
At a time when the rationale behind capital punishment is being increasingly questioned in the US - a convicted killer was granted clemency in Virginia just this week because of doubts about the quality of evidence against him - the passions swirling around Williams' case have taken on a rare intensity.
This week is likely to see a grim milestone, as a North Carolina convict is slated to become the thousandth person executed in the US since the reintroduction of the death penalty in the 1970s. Yesterday's protest was led by the Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in a recent television movie called Redemption. He was joined by Snoop Dogg, the gangsta rapper.
Mr Foxx's birthday happens to fall on 13 December, the execution date. He said earlier this week: "The only birthday present I want from the Governor is clemency for Stan 'Tookie' Williams."
Passions are equally high on the pro-execution side of the argument. A popular Los Angeles-area radio show has inaugurated a "Kill Tookie" hour - prompting heated accusations of racism - and posted photographs of the murder victims from his trial on its website. Law enforcement officials, meanwhile, appear to have launched something of a smear campaign against Williams. Police in the impoverished Los Angeles suburb of Fontana recently identified him as the illegitimate father of a known sex offender accused of raping a 13-year-old child. The sex offender's mother has since given a sworn statement saying the police story is untrue.
A spokesman at San Quentin prison outside San Francisco, home to California's death row, has accused Williams of "orchestrating gangland crimes from his cell". This, however, is contradicted by Williams' written disciplinary record, in which his jailers commend him for his "positive programme over the past 10 years".
Governor Schwarzenegger has indicated he is not looking forward to making a decision. American politicians rarely lose support by taking a tough stance on crime, but he may be more sensitive than most to pressure from Hollywood and the international community. He is due to hold a private meeting with lawyers from both sides next week.
© 2005 Independent News and Media Limited