There is undeniable hypocrisy in California Governor Arnold
Schwarzenegger, who built his fame by feeding adolescent fantasies of
killing, denying clemency to a former Crips leader who counseled
teenagers against gang violence.
The lethal injection California officials administered to Stanley
"Tookie" Williams on December 13 has sparked a notably reinvigorated
debate over the death penalty, driven as well by the execution of
Vietnam combat veteran Kenneth Boyd in North Carolina on December 2,
the 1,000th state killing since the Supreme Court reinstated capital
punishment in 1976.
Like Karla Faye Tucker of Texas, whose plea for clemency in 1998 was
famously mocked by then-Governor George W. Bush, Tookie Williams forced
public debate over the notion of personal redemption. In denying
clemency Schwarzenegger insisted that Williams's many years of antigang
mediation and writing could not signify redemption in the absence of
admission of guilt--and Tookie Williams always insisted he was innocent
of the four killings for which he was convicted.
One inevitably wonders if Schwarzenegger would really have ruled the
other way if Williams had uttered a last-minute confession. The recent
history of death row cases reveals that guilt--even with confession--is
a profoundly error-prone finding, and thus a poor guide to mercy.
Clemency, in any event, is not in law contingent upon either innocence
or admission of guilt; in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
governors routinely set aside death sentences at a far higher rate than
they do today.
In the past decade, exoneration of more than 120 innocent death row
inmates has generated a widening unease with capital punishment. The
executions of Williams and Boyd--a celebrated African-American and
reformed gang leader in California and a little-known, white Vietnam
veteran in North Carolina who insisted, with substantial reason, that
combat trauma contributed to his violent record--together move the
debate to a new question: whether the finality of execution is ever a
just measure of the twists and turns of an offender's life, or whether
it is time to abandon a penalty that has outlived any purpose except
Bruce Shapiro was director of The Nation Institute's Supreme Court Watch during the nominations of Justices Thomas, Ginsburg and Breyer. His most recent book is Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years of Investigative Journalism in America.
© 2005 The Nation