'Tookie' stirs up death penalty debate

Once again Hollywood and the recording industry got it all wrong.  In fact, if you simply wait to see which side of an issue most of Hollywood comes out in support of, you'll usually be right, safe, and sane to support the opposite viewpoint, one that will usually reflect the values of Americans who don't see themselves as the sun that the planets (you and I) must forever circle.  On this one matter though I somehow find myself in agreement with Jessie Jackson and Snoop Dogg (born Calvin Cordozar Broadus, Jr.), both of whom came out in support of clemency for Crips gang founder and leader, and convicted murderer, Stanley "Tookie" Williams. 

It's not that Williams wasn't responsible for the brutal murders of four of his fellow citizens in two different 1979 robberies, because he was.   His known victims in that year included three Asian motel operators, the Yang family, which included a mother, father, and their daughter, and one white male.  Race is only important here because Williams told one witness that he shot 26-year-old convenience store worker Albert Owens twice in the back because Owens was white.  This was a hate crime that would have caused riots in the streets were the races reversed.  Snoop and the other supporters of clemency for Tookie wanted us to simply forget the vicious hate crime aspect to Williams' murders and instead reward him for the so-called good he's done since he's been in jail.  Gangsta rapper Snoop (himself once a member of the bloody L.A. Crips gang) reformed.  He realized the real money was not in drive-by shootings and other "gangsta" behavior, but in singing about and otherwise glamorizing that antisocial behavior, behavior that Tookie later spoke out against. 

Williams had a media blitz second only to that distorting the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner by Mumia Abu-Jamal, spawning the fairy tales surrounding Mumia's execution style murder of Officer Faulkner.  As in the case of Mumia, Williams' "true believers" came out in record numbers, apparently forgetting or just disregarding the four lives that Williams shot to pieces some 26 years ago.  Tookie refused to accept public responsibility for his crimes right up to the time of his death just after midnight California time on Tuesday morning.  Some suggested that true repentance would have included the acknowledgment of his killings and some, any, evidence of remorse that could have established a more realistic basis for his request for clemency from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The Governor said no, as did the Supreme Court, and Tookie went to his death in a new set of prison clothes, and a new attitude developed in prison.  But the families of his victims never got the opportunity to hear him accept responsibility for the murder of their loved ones.  Were he a believer he had to have known that he was taking the truth to the afterlife with him.  If not, he died with a lie on his lips.

I spent years believing in the death penalty.  Who among you can not recall the face or name of some infamous serial murderer, some brutal rapist, or some child killer who has been identified, tried, and convicted in recent years who was the obvious poster boy for the death penalty?  But there have been poster girls, too.  In 1998 Karla Faye Tucker was put to death for a brutal double murder she committed while under the influence of drugs.  She, like Tookie, had become reformed in prison and dedicated her life to helping others.  But she, unlike Tookie, had always accepted responsibility for her crimes.  If one very important part of your life is a lie, as in Tookie's case, then his refusal to stand up and say what he did and why makes his other "truthful" messages somehow ring hollow. 

But it's not even about whether Karla or Tookie were truthful at the beginning or at the end of their lives.  And it's not even about the great P.R. machine that got behind the likes of Tookie and conveniently and coldly forgot his victims.  No, it's simply about the death penalty itself.  I once supported capital punishment as a just penalty, revenge of the state and its people, especially for vicious murderers and child molesters, monsters that I could not fathom continuing to walk the streets of America, much less continuing to breathe. 

But as an FBI Agent I also had to consider this fact:  if some murdering, raping, molesting monster believed that he would get the death penalty if arrested and convicted, and if a police officer, deputy sheriff, state trooper, or federal agent stood between him and his life, the threat to these brave men and women who work so hard to keep us safe was increased by the continuation of capital punishment, or so my logic went.  Then there was a graduate school debate in which a clever professor had me, conservative white FBI Agent, take an anti-death penalty position, and a black inner city former prison inmate and current urban activist take the pro-death penalty position -- a debate that we both came away from somehow changed.  As we consider the value of human life, by what law of the land should we be bound, both legally and morally, concerning capital punishment?

America is one of 76 countries that still practice capital punishment.  Ninety-one other countries have abolished this form of government-sanctioned murder, while nine countries reserve it for very special cases and 32 countries still have it on their books, but have not used it as a form of punishment in many years.  We know that it costs between $25,000-$50,000 per year to keep a prisoner in jail.  And it takes millions of dollars to work a case through the various appeal processes to ultimately get one of the 3,315 inmates currently on death row in the U.S. to actually face this government-supported ultimate judgment.  But then it's not about money, because we, as a nation, spend it every year in such matters.  Fifty-nine men and women in 12 states were put to death in America in 2004; 36 were white, 19 were black, 3 were Hispanic, and 1 was Asian. 

Although some would have you believe otherwise, it's not that Tookie Williams, or Karla Faye Tucker, or anyone who has ever been convicted of a capital crime (Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example) wasn't deserving of their sentence.  However, one good argument against the death penalty has always been that you can't reverse a wrongful conviction that resulted in an execution.

But, for me, it's just too hard to differentiate between a murder committed by some two-legged monster masquerading as a human being, and one done on the recommendation of a jury and the concurrence of a judge and the remainder of the criminal justice system.  It's still murder, legally sanctioned or otherwise, and we are all somehow responsible when the ultimate penalty is demanded of another.  Besides, I believe that life in prison without parole is a far worse penalty than the eternal sleep that a lethal injection provides.  If you really want to punish someone, make him or her awaken every day and long for one breath of freedom, one chance to drive to a 7/11 for a Coke, or hike along a cool mountain brook, or walk into a brightly decorated shopping mall at Christmas time.  Make them face the reality that the things they see on TV will never be seen, touched, or otherwise experienced by them for the rest of their natural lives.  That, to me, would be the ultimate punishment and would reflect the level of humanity and socialization that we, as Americans, like to believe we have achieved.  If you really want revenge, life in prison means getting revenge, day after long day.

Did Williams deserve to die?  The law says that he did, but does his death make us rest easier at night, make us safer in our homes, or more morally correct than some third world banana republic that would chop off his head with a machete or guillotine ("obvious" cruel and unusual punishment as compared to the lethal injection endured by Williams).  There are crimes, like those committed by Tookie and Karla and Timothy and the other 3,000 plus residents of death row that should demand life, true life, in prison.  Period.  Were one of my loved one to have been a victim of Tookie's, I, too, might have sought my pound of flesh.  But as a human being, I simply cannot allow the act of another to cause me to loose my identity as human; otherwise I have also lost the ability to tell the difference between him and me.  Only when we as a society recognize murder for what it is (vs. killing in self defense or as a combatant in war) and stop allowing our courts and government to commit it, will we truly deserve to be called a modern society.  Otherwise we are using violence to deal with violence.  And what we ultimately get, is just more violence.

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."