A divided U.S. appeals court declined on Wednesday to reconsider a death penalty verdict against the founder of a street gang turned peace advocate, making possible his execution later this year after a quarter-century delay.
Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the black founder of the Crips gang in Los Angeles, was convicted in the 1979 murders of a convenience store clerk in a $120 robbery and of a woman and her parents in a motel robbery in which he stole $50.
An all-white jury convicted him on four counts of first-degree murder and two counts of robbery in 1981 and imposed the death penalty.
Since then Williams has filed a long series of legal challenges, as well as written a series of books urging youth not to get involved with gangs. The Cannes Film Festival last year screened a drama about his life starring Jamie Foxx, nominated for best actor and best supporting actor in this year's Academy Awards contest.
On Wednesday, a majority of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to allow a 11-judge en banc group to reconsider an earlier ruling from a 9th Circuit three-judge panel. The decision produced a relatively rare dissent, with nine judges in favor of rehearing the case en banc.
Racial composition questioned
“In this a case, a prosecutor, publicly castigated by the Supreme Court of California for his pattern of racially motivated peremptory jury challenges, removed all blacks from Williams’ jury,” Judge Johnnie Rawlinson wrote in his dissent.
“In declining to take this case en banc, our court bestows an implicit imprimatur upon the trial court’s denial of a constitutionally mandated jury selection process.”
“The very legitimacy of our system of justice depends upon continued vigilance against such practices,” wrote Rawlinson, who was joined in his dissent by eight other judges.
The court majority, whose numbers were not specified, did not provide any reasoning for their decision to decline to rehear the case, as is customary in such orders.
Execution could be this summer
The 9th Circuit order means that Williams could be executed as early as this summer, said Dane Gillette, California’s senior assistant attorney general who oversees death penalty cases. The last hurdle would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
California executed its first prisoner in three years last month. Long legal reviews typically result in two-decade-long delays before executions take place at San Quentin prison north of San Francisco.
Williams has renounced his gang past, has appeared on national television programs, and has a Web site promoting his books. “I pray that one day my apology will be accepted,” he writes on Tookie.com. “I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions.”
While in prison, Williams was nominated by supporters in 2001 for a Nobel Peace Prize for his series of children’s books and efforts to curtail youth gang violence.
Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, made a brief statement after the appeals court ruling: “A jury determined that the appropriate sentence for Stanley Williams for his crimes was death. We’re defending that judgment.”
In its 2002 decision, the three-judge panel said Williams had run out of legal options but suggested he was a good candidate for clemency. The judges cited the children’s books, as well as messages of peace Williams posts on his Web site.