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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 17:27 GMT
Reformed gang leader awaits death
By Alistair Leithead
BBC News

On Tuesday, 13 December the co-founder of one of the world's biggest gangs, a man convicted of murdering four people, will be led into a small room in the depths of San Quentin prison in San Francisco Bay.

Stanley "Tookie" Williams in San Quentin State Prison at the age of 29
Williams has become a reformed character since entering jail

The bodybuilder who terrorised 1970s South Central Los Angeles with his "Crips" gang will be strapped to a medical table, and a lethal injection will bring Stanley "Tookie" Williams' 24 years on death row to an end.

He knows he has done wrong in his life, but he still proclaims his innocence.

Behind him he will leave five Nobel peace prize nominations, a letter from President George W Bush commending him on his work, and a movie portraying his life called, simply, Redemption.

There is one man who can stop the execution, a man who Tookie met 30 years ago when they were both bodybuilders and who is now governor of California - Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He is the only person with the power to grant clemency to stay the execution and commute Williams' four death sentences to life imprisonment with no parole.

What he will have to decide is whether Williams really has redeemed himself, and whether the work he has done from death row justifies a discretionary power that has not been used in California for almost 40 years.

It will be a very difficult decision and one he says he dreads.


Over the past 10 years Tookie Williams, with the help of his supporter and friend Barbara Becnel, has written eight children's books all with the aim of stopping youngsters living a violent gang life.

Stanley Tookie Williams
Williams co-founded the notorious Crips gang

"He knew in part he was responsible for a bloody legacy of the Crips in South Central LA where he was raised, and he did not want that to be his sole legacy," said Barbara, a journalist who first visited him almost 10 years ago.

"He wanted to reach out to kids and persuade them not to follow in his footsteps, and he thought the way to do it was to write books for kids."

An account of prison life followed, as did an autobiography. He sent a message denouncing the gangster life and preaching peace to rival gangs. His words secured a truce - his protocol for peace has been credited with helping settle disputes in New Jersey and in other countries.

And all from a man on death row found guilty of murdering a 26-year-old shop assistant and three members of a Taiwanese family who owned a motel, all shot at close range and in cold blood back in 1979.

Questions have been asked over the conviction, such as the racial make-up of the jury, and the credibility of key witnesses, but every appeal he has lodged has failed. Now there is nowhere left to appeal.

'Needs to be punished'

Lora Owens, the stepmother of Albert, killed in a 7/11 store, has no doubt in her mind: "If I didn't believe that the facts didn't stand I would not be so adamant.

"Every fibre of my being believes that he is guilty and he needs to be punished. He needs to accept the judgement that the courts gave him."

She says she will go to the prison on 13 December and only then will she feel Albert will be able to rest in peace.

"I believe he needs to be executed and where his soul goes will be between him and God," she said.

High-profile supporters

Meeting Stanley "Tookie" Williams, now 51, on death row, he still has the physical presence despite the soft, thoughtful voice.

He says he is now at peace, not frightened of death, but keen to continue his work.

"It was during a seven-year stint in solitary confinement where I was able to battle my demons and re-educate myself and embrace edification and spiritual cultivation and that's where I was able to develop a sense of redemption," he said.

Snoop Dogg
Rapper Snoop Dogg attended a rally for Williams at San Quentin State Prison

Critics say the work of a gang leader from another generation has little impact on the violent streets of Los Angeles, but those lobbying for clemency cite thousands of e-mails from people thanking him for influencing their lives for the good.

And his supporters include Snoop Dogg, Bianca Jagger, Susan Sarandon and Rev Jesse Jackson.

Lora Owens believes the anti-death penalty lobby have jumped on his case and are using it for their own means.

"Most of them have a political agenda and do not even care that Williams is a murderer. They say it doesn't matter what he has done, but it matters to people like me who have had our children murdered."

"I believe in redemption," she said, "but I do not believe Williams has been redeemed. I believe he is using it for his own manipulation."

Governor Schwarzenegger is a man stung politically in a recent poll: A Republican in a Democrat's state who may want to reach out to the left to build bridges, or may know 68% of California support the death penalty.

He has until 13 December to make his decision.

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