Image: Tookie Williams
Ho  /  Reuters
Stanley Tookie Williams was executed at San Quentin State prison early Tuesday morning.
msnbc.com news services
updated 12/13/2005 5:30:53 AM ET 2005-12-13T10:30:53

Convicted killer Stanley Tookie Williams, the Crips gang co-founder whose case stirred a national debate about capital punishment versus the possibility of redemption, was executed Tuesday morning.

Williams, 51, died at 12:35 a.m. after receiving a lethal injection at San Quentin State Prison, officials said. Before the execution, he was "complacent, quiet and thoughtful," Corrections Department spokeswoman Terry Thornton said.

The case became the state's highest-profile execution in decades. Hollywood stars and capital punishment foes argued that Williams' sentence should be commuted to life in prison because he had made amends by writing children's books about the dangers of gangs and violence.

In the days leading up to the execution, state and federal courts refused to reopen his case. Monday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied Williams' request for clemency, suggesting that his supposed change of heart was not genuine because he had not shown any real remorse for the countless killings committed by the Crips.

"Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?" Schwarzenegger wrote. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption."

Trouble finding vein
At the execution, the people administering the injections had trouble finding a vein in Williams' left arm for the injection. It took about 12 minutes for them to put in the line, said one reporter.

At one point, according to a reporter who witnessed the execution, it looked like Williams said to the guards in frustration, “Still can’t find it?” Then he leaned back down, said the reporter.

"He was trying to help them find a vein that would work for them," said said Steve Ornoski, the prison warden.

When he walked into the room, "all he would do is look at his supporters, then he made dramatic turn and looked at all of [the media]," said MSNBC's Rita Cosby, who saw Williams put to death.

Williams' supporters stood at the back of the room and gave what looked like black power salutes several times, said the reporters. After he was declared dead, the supporters left and yelled in unison, "The state of California just killed an innocent man," said the reporters.

He declined to give last words at the execution, and instead passed on a statement to be read by longtime friend Barbara Becnel after his death.

In the days leading up to his execution, Williams' supporters and opponents appeared to be more occupied with his fate than he was.

“Me fearing what I’m facing, what possible good is it going to do for me? How is that going to benefit me?” Williams said in a recent interview. “If it’s my time to be executed, what’s all the ranting and raving going to do?”

Condemned for 1981 killings
Williams was condemned in 1981 for gunning down convenience store clerk Albert Owens, 26, at a 7-Eleven in Whittier and killing Yen-I Yang, 76, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang, 63, and the couple's daughter Yu-Chin Yang Lin, 43, at the Los Angeles motel they owned. Williams claimed he was innocent.

Witnesses at the trial said Williams boasted about the killings, stating "You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him." Williams then made a growling noise and laughed for five to six minutes, according to the transcript that the governor referenced in his denial of clemency.

Williams was the 12th person executed in California since lawmakers reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

Celebrities protest
About 1,000 death penalty supporters and opponents gathered outside the prison to await the execution. Singer Joan Baez, actor Mike Farrell and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the celebrities who protested the execution.

"Tonight is planned, efficient, calculated, antiseptic, cold-blooded murder and I think everyone who is here is here to try to enlist the morality and soul of this country," said Baez, who sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on a small plywood stage set up just outside the gates.

A contingent of 40 people who had walked the approximately 25 miles from San Francisco held signs calling for an end to "state-sponsored murder." Others said they wanted to honor the memory of Williams' victims.

Former Crips member Donald Archie, 51, was among those attending a candlelight vigil. He said he would work to spread Williams' anti-gang message.

"The work ain't going to stop," said Archie, who said he was known as "Sweetback" as a young Crips member. "Tookie's body might lay down, but his spirit ain't going nowhere. I want everyone to know that, the spirit lives."

Image: Michael Scruggs
Damian Dovarganes  /  AP
Michael Scruggs, a former founding member of the Inglewood Village Crips gang, protests Stanley Tookie Williams' execution on Monday in Los Angeles.

Among the celebrities who took up Williams' cause were Jamie Foxx, who played the gang leader in a cable movie about Williams; rapper Snoop Dogg, himself a former Crip; Sister Helen Prejean, the nun depicted in "Dead Man Walking"; and Bianca Jagger. During Williams' 24 years on death row, a Swiss legislator, college professors and others nominated him for the Nobel Prizes in peace and literature.

"There is no part of me that existed then that exists now," Williams said recently during an interview with The Associated Press.

"I haven't had a lot of joy in my life. But in here," he said, pointing to his heart, "I'm happy. I am peaceful in here. I am joyful in here."

Victims’ relatives not swayed
Williams' statements did not sway some relatives of his victims, including Lora Owens, Albert Owens' stepmother. In the days before his death, she was among the outspoken advocates who argued the execution should go forward.

"(Williams) chose to shoot Albert in the back twice. He didn't do anything to deserve it. He begged for his life," she said during a recent interview. "He shot him not once, but twice in the back. ... I believe Williams needs to get the punishment he was given when he was tried and sentenced."

In denying clemency to Williams, Schwarzenegger said that the evidence of his guilt was “strong and compelling,” and he dismissed suggestions that the trial was unfair.

The governor noted that Williams dedicated his 1998 book “Life in Prison” to a list of figures that included the black militant George Jackson — “a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems.”

Schwarzenegger also noted that there is “little mention or atonement in his writings and his plea for clemency of the countless murders committed by the Crips following the lifestyle Williams once espoused. The senseless killing that has ruined many families, particularly in African-American communities, in the name of the Crips and gang warfare is a tragedy of our modern culture.”

Williams and a friend founded the Crips in Los Angeles in 1971. Authorities say it is responsible for hundreds of deaths, many of them in battles with the rival Bloods for turf and control of the drug trade.

The Associated Press and MSNBC's Rita Cosby contributed to this report.

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