Second thoughts on the Tookie Williams case

Tookie Williams was responsible for hundreds of murders, so I find it hard to mourn his death. But he might well have been innocent of the particular murders for which he was actually executed.

Before his execution, I made some unflattering references to Stanley “Tookie” Williams and the people demanding that he be spared. It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that as the reputed co-founder, and certainly an early leader, of the Crips, Williams was in effect a serial killer and a purveyor of domestic terror, even though law enforcement couldn’t tie him directly to any of the hundreds (at least) of murders and the uncounted acts of violence and intimidation conducted by his followers.

(Someone from the NAACP demanded rhetorically why, if gang leadership was such an awful thing, the government wasn’t going after the leadership of the KKK. To that I have two answers: 1) Making cases against the leadership of violent organizations is hard. 2) Over the past quarter-century, the Crips have killed at least a hundred times as many African-Americans as the Klan.)

So Williams, despite his post-conviction spiritual enlightenment and good works, was not the poster child I would have chosen for the anti-death-penalty movement.

All that said, I was grossly unfair to at least some of Williams’s defenders, who were asserting not his redemption but his innocence: not in general, since his role with the Crips is undeniable, but his innocence of the four murders of which he was convicted.

Williams was convicted largely on the word of a jailhouse informant who bargained his way out of his own potential trip to Death Row by asserting that Williams had confessed to him. Such testimony is, of course, inherently unreliable.

If we’re considering the question of whether Williams was guilty of the specific murders he died for, rather than the question of whether in some non-legal sense he deserved to die, then his role as the co-founder of the Crips cuts for him rather than against him. His notoriety could only have increased the pressure on the LA Sheriff’s Department and the LA DA’s Office to cut corners in order to convict him. That the prosecutor in fact used peremptory challenges to remove all blacks from the jury pool is undisputed; nor is there any question that he used strongly racist language (e.g., “jungle”) in seeking the death penalty. Is it implausible that a prosecutor willing to do that might also offer perjured testimony and suppress exculpatory evidence? Hardly.

It goes without saying that, in a government under law, people should be punished only for crimes they actually committed. So, insofar as the fuss about Williams was about his innocence of those particular crimes — and by extension about law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct — the people making that fuss were doing worthy work, and deserve respect for it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: