It took California prison officials 12 minutes to place the needle in the arm of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, 51, an ex-gang leader who was executed by lethal injection on Tuesday for the murder of four people during robberies in 1979.
Witnesses said guards struggled to find the vein in his left arm. “Still can’t find it?” Williams asked, and while he waited, strapped down, for the chemicals to work through his blood, he raised his head towards the witness room and looked at Barbara Becnel, the editor of a series of books he had written warning young people against gang life.
Williams co-founded the notorious Crips gang in Los Angeles as a teenager — paving the way for years of street violence in the late 1970s and ’80s when the Crips struggled with a rival gang, the Bloods, for turf in downtown L.A. After his murder conviction, though, Williams repudiated gang life, wrote children’s books against it, and helped broker a truce between Crips and Bloods at a “gang summit” in 1993. This work led to five Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
Top courts and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected final appeals to spare his life. “Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologize or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case,” Schwarzenegger wrote on Monday in denying clemency. “Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption.” The “cumulative weight of evidence” meant there was no reason to doubt his conviction, said Schwarzenegger.
The former actor’s refusal to grant clemency met with bitter criticism in his native Austria where members of the Greens party called for his Austrian citizenship to be revoked, a demand Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel immediately rejected. Local politicians in Graz, where the governor was born, said they would seek to have the city’s Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium renamed.
Like the governor, Williams was a former bodybuilder, and he claimed to have met Schwarzenegger in California during the ’70s. But the thug life was hard to resist, and he went to jail for the Feb. 28, 1979, murder of Albert Owens during a robbery at a 7-Eleven in Whittier, California, and three other murders two weeks later. According to court papers and testimony, Williams ordered Owens into the back room and shot him twice in the back. There were no witnesses other than his three accomplices.
On March 11, 1979, Williams broke down a door at the Brookhaven Motel, killing the owners — Yen-I Yang, 76, and his wife, Tsai-Shai Yang, 63 — and the couple’s daughter Yee-Chen Lin, 43. The Yangs’ son was at the hotel but not in the room when Williams broke in.
“I am innocent. I will not lie to gain clemency,” Williams reportedly told civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who visited him in November. “The evidence connecting me with these crimes is inaccurate. It is unsound, and I would urge you mister governor to be fair.”
More than 1,000 people demonstrated against the execution outside the prison gates on Monday night. One demonstrator burned a US flag, others carried placards that read “Tookie We Love You” and “Stop State Murder”.
Williams’s supporters had argued he should have been spared so that he could continue his anti-gang work from behind bars.
A number of celebrities had campaigned for clemency including bishop Desmond Tutu und Winnie Mandela, human rights activist Bianca Jagger, and actors Jamie Foxx, Dannie Glover, Anjelica Houston and Tim Robbins. Some 50,000 people had signed a petition on his behalf.
After his death, Becnel and two other supporters broke the silence in the witness room, saying: “The state of California just killed an innocent man.” A relative of one of the victims wept at their statement.