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Last Updated: Monday, 12 December 2005, 22:43 GMT
Gang boss case sparks death row debate
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

In the last few weeks many Americans will have heard the name Stanley "Tookie" Williams, due to a high-profile, yet ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to spare the ex-gang leader from execution in California.

Rap star Snoop Dogg
Celebrities like rap star Snoop Dogg have put the case on the map

Supporters of Williams, who was convicted of four murders in 1981, range from Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx and rap star Snoop Dogg to Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Winnie Mandela.

While it would probably be wrong to say the case has sparked massive public interest, it has raised a number of political, social and legal issues that have propelled it from the US West Coast into the national arena.

Perhaps most important of these is what the case says about the death penalty - a perennially divisive issue across the United States.

Williams, 51, co-founded the notorious Crips gang, but while in jail has apparently been rehabilitated, winning praise for his anti-gang books, and earning several Nobel Peace Prize nominations for his teachings.

His lawyers did not ask California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to spare Williams' life because he is innocent - although Williams still denies the murders.

Instead they said he was worth more alive than dead because of his ongoing work helping youths to avoid gangs.

Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption
Arnold Schwarzenegger
California governor

The case has resonated with opponents of the death penalty who argue that if someone as bad as Stanley Williams can be rehabilitated, then the death penalty - which removes the possibility of rehabilitation - must be wrong.

Opponents said Williams did not deserve clemency because he had not admitted the murders and had retained gang ties - and in any case deserved the ultimate punishment for his crimes.

In the end, Mr Schwarzenegger said he could find no justification for granting clemency to Williams when the court had decided on death.

"Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologise or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case," the governor wrote.

"Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption.

"Based on the cumulative weight of the evidence, there is no reason to second guess the jury's decision of guilt or raise significant doubts or serious reservations about Williams' convictions and death sentence."

Fraught time

The most obvious driver behind the case's media impact is the celebrity factor.

Stanley 'Tookie' Williams
Williams co-founded the notorious Crips gang
Not only has support for Williams been intense among some Hollywood celebrities and black icons, but Mr Schwarzenegger is often a story in his own right.

Williams, an avid bodybuilder, said he met Mr Schwarzenegger several times in the Los Angeles area in the early 1970s, including at the famous Muscle Beach gym.

Although the judgement did not hinge on politics, the choice came at a particularly fraught time for Mr Schwarzenegger who is seeking to recover from a disastrous referendum last month, and is eyeing a second term.

Doing badly with large swaths of the state's Democratic-leaning electorate, the Republican governor is working to reclaim a centrist image.

Granting clemency to Williams might have fitted in with a new characterization of Mr Schwarzenegger as a more humane, caring individual.

Yet it would also have risked alienating his conservative Republican base. A number of pundits said the decision put the actor-turned-politician in a no win situation.

Fear of violence

There is no doubt that interest in the case has been strongest in the Los Angeles area. It was here that Williams founded the notorious Crips street gang.

Williams' lawyers said tens of thousands of people had written letters and e-mails, urging that their client be allowed to live.

Supporters bought full-page advertisements in newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, to push for clemency.

Some believe that Williams' execution could spark violence in some black communities in California. Stanley Williams himself has said any such outbreaks would tarnish his legacy.

Yet across the US there will also be sympathy with the families of the victims who say that too much attention has been paid to the criminal and not enough to his crimes.

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