Sunday, December 25, 2005

From The Chicago tribune Will execution move the debate? The case of Stanley Tookie Williams, who was killed by lethal injection Tuesday, rallied foes and advocates of the death penaltyBy Maurice Possley and Steve MillsTribune staff reportersPublished December 13, 2005, 2:42 AM CST LOS ANGELES -- Of the more than 1,000 people executed in this country since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, the case of Stanley Tookie Williams is one of only a few that have emerged as touchstones in the national debate over the ultimate punishment.Early Tuesday, Williams was executed by lethal injection at California's San Quentin prison, after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected two last-minute bids for clemency. On Monday, Schwarzenegger had argued that Williams' failure to express remorse for four 1979 murders showed he was not rehabilitated.Whether Williams' execution ultimately moves the death penalty debate is a matter of debate itself.Public support for the death penalty has dropped in the past 25 years as 122 inmates have been exonerated and set free from Death Rows. At the same time, the machinery of execution has slowed.In these most public of cases, questions are posed in varying ways: Is this case a question of innocence? Is it a matter of rehabilitation and, consequently, mercy? Or is it the continuing question of the propriety of capital punishment?Think of Gary Graham and Karla Faye Tucker (both executed in Texas), Mumia Abu-Jamal (who obtained a new sentencing hearing this year in Pennsylvania) and more recently, Robin Lovitt (commuted last month to life in prison in Virginia).Assessing the legacy of these cases is difficult, particularly when they seem to have a relatively short public shelf life.The most recent Gallup poll, taken in October, shows that support nationally for the death penalty has dropped from as high as 80 percent in 1994 to 64 percent, though it has remained steady for the past three years.According to the poll, that support dips to 56 percent if the alternative is life in prison without parole.Death sentences have dropped too. The Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, reports that the number of death sentences imposed has fallen from a high of more than 300 annually in the 1990s to 144 in 2003.At the same time, the number of executions has fallen from a high of 98 in 1999 to 59 in 2004. Williams was the 59th this year.And in the past year, the specter of wrongful executions was raised by the Tribune and the Houston Chronicle, whose investigations strongly suggested that Texas executed innocent men--Cameron Todd Willingham and Ruben Cantu.Williams' is the latest in a series of recent capital cases that have captured the attention of the public and the media. His case focused primarily on his rehabilitation, though his attorneys contended at the 11th hour that they had found three jailhouse witnesses who claimed Williams was framed.In the end, death penalty advocates and opponents alike will likely point to his case as supporting their positions. As a former leader of the notorious Crips street gang, he was convicted of four murders. While in prison, he wrote children's books with anti-gang themes and denounced violence.A commutation likely would have fueled the anti-death penalty movement more than his execution will bolster those who support capital punishment, said Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., and vice president of the National District Attorneys Association.Marquis, a noted death penalty supporter, said individual cases rarely lead to significant change. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's recent commutation of Lovitt's sentence came and went with little controversy.Rallying point for opponentsAt the same time, though, Lawrence Marshall, founder of Northwestern University Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions and now a professor at Stanford Law School in California, said, "Clearly, here in California, this [Williams'] case has engendered a tremendous amount of passion and has created an anti-death penalty movement that is more vocal than ever."The question is what's going to happen to that," he said. "Will this be part of a series of events that triggers more scrutiny and questions, or will it be perceived as a defeat with people going back to their homes to forget about it? It is too soon to tell." Much like Williams' case, the lead-up to the executions in Texas of Tucker and Graham stirred great controversy.Marquis compared Williams' case to that of Abu-Jamal, the Pennsylvania Death Row inmate who attracted celebrity supporters. After a court granted Abu-Jamal a new sentencing hearing, the case swiftly "fell off the radar," he said. If the Williams case has any impact, Marquis said, it will be that, for a short time at least, the death penalty became a topic of discussion. "The Tookie Williams execution is being used as a vehicle to discuss the death penalty, which is not an altogether bad thing," Marquis said. "Through the fog of all the rhetoric, some good issues are being discussed." To Richard Dieter, head of the Death Penalty Information Center, Williams' bid for clemency was a test case in an effort to determine which way the capital punishment debate is headed--though reading the trend is far from simple. Conflicting signals For example, Congress is threatening to break up the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has long been seen as one of the most liberal federal appeals courts in the nation. In addition, lawmakers are considering the Streamlined Procedures Act, which would limit convicted inmates' ability to take their appeals to federal court. At the same time, the California Senate created a commission to study the death penalty system there and deliver a report by the end of 2007. "It used to be that the way Texas goes, there goes the death penalty," Dieter said. "But maybe now it will be California. This could signal California having quite a few executions." David Dow, a death penalty lawyer who runs the Texas Innocence Network, offered another view, predicting the spike in the death penalty debate would subside until another high-profile case comes into focus. He noted that just two weeks ago, the nation's 1,000th execution made headlines. "But in the two weeks after number 1,000, there were two more executions that nobody paid attention to," he said. Had Schwarzenegger spared Williams, it might have provided cover for other governors--especially Republicans who traditionally have been outspoken supporters of the death penalty--to grant clemency. But sometimes a governor's decision has little long-lasting impact. In 1996, then-Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar commuted the death sentence of Guinevere Garcia, even though Garcia demanded to be put to death, in what was largely perceived as Edgar's reluctance to sign a death warrant for a woman. Edgar's action was only a footnote when Gov. George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions in Illinois in 2000 and emptied Death Row with a mass commutation in 2003. "Sure, the level of attention [the Williams case] is receiving is not going to last," Dieter said. "But it will have an effect. You may not remember the name, but it may give a hint on the death penalty's direction." Steve Mills reported from Los Angeles and Maurice Possley from Chicago

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