The Gangsta as Nobel Nominee
A Crip and his credulous friends smooth over a life of murder and mayhem
Dec 18, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 14 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
BEING A QUADRUPLE MURDERER who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize means never having to say you're sorry to your victims' families. At least that's what some journalists and one particular Swiss politician seem to believe.
Ask Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the founder of the original Crips gang in Los Angeles, convicted killer, and Nobel nominee. During a 1979 robbery, he shot a teenaged 7-Eleven clerk named Alvin Owens twice in the head, after the unarmed Owens had obediently laid down on the floor. Williams and his accomplices made off with $ 120. Later, according to court testimony, he clowned around in front of friends imitating Owens's death gurgle. A month later, he and his shotgun stormed into a motel where he killed Thsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang, and Yee Chen Lin. Robert Yang heard the shots, ran to the front room, and found his father, mother, and sister mortally wounded. In 1981, a jury sentenced Williams to death.
Mario Fehr, the Swiss member of parliament who recently nominated Williams for the Nobel Prize, would rather not dwell on the past. "If he really has killed these four people," Fehr said in a recent phone interview, "that is something I do not like. But I mean, he has changed his life totally after being in prison for several years. This nomination is for his work in prison."
Tookie has kept busy while on death row. With the help of activist-journalist Barbara Becnel, he has written several books that warn children away from gangs -- to atone for his role in co-founding the Crips. (In 1979, the other Crips founder, Raymond Lee Washington, was killed by a member of a rival gang.) Tookie's latest book, Life in Prison, has been honored by the American Library Association, while earlier books of his were selected for a 1996 panel on youth violence sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. "Do not follow in my footsteps," he laudably warns young people on his website.
This missionary work has earned Tookie fawning coverage. Stories on the Nobel nomination, for example, frequently feature high praise from Fehr and hosannas from Becnel who has said her pet cause was "wide-eyed like a child and really excited" by the nomination. Oh, and humbled too, apparently. In 1993, the Los Angeles Times printed an interview with Williams conducted by Becnel, in which the activist noted, "Williams has earned his 'props' -- his proper respect -- because he has taken his years in prison like a man, not snitching on or complaining to anyone." In prison, Williams told Becnel, he was studying "prison-economics, politics, black history, math, English, philosophy, psychology. And what I've learned has taught me to appeal to logic." Appalled, then deputy attorney general Joan Comparet wrote a letter to the editor, saying she was "shocked that nowhere in the article does Becnel mention the historical fact that Stanley Williams is on death row because he murdered four people in 1979."
The details of Tookie's crimes are commonly omitted from news profiles. A 1996 Los Angeles Times story gushed that Williams "is adamant that his literary effort has nothing to do with the appeal of his case in federal court, a normal path for capital offenses. In fact, he refuses to discuss his case at all." But there is always room for kind words from Tookie's friends. Former gang moll Winnie Mandela came to San Quentin's death row in 1999 to visit Williams and said, according to AP writer Kim Curtis, "What I find most fascinating is, he seems to have completely converted. It's a good message for our children throughout the world . . . that you can reform." In another story, Curtis wrote how Tookie's "eyes soften when he talks about his work with children."
There's one big item many journalists seem to have missed -- that Tookie's reformation lacks remorse for the spilled blood of his four victims. On his website, there is something called "The Apology," but it's an apology for starting the Crips, not for killing four strangers. When he started the gang, Williams writes, "I never imagined Crips membership would one day spread throughout California, would spread to much of the rest of the nation and to cities in South Africa, where Crips copycat gangs have formed. I also didn't expect the Crips to end up ruining the lives of so many young people, especially black men who have hurt other black men."
And: "So today I apologize to you all -- the children of America and South Africa -- who must cope every day with dangerous street gangs." No apologies for the family of the white boy he shot in the head. No apology for the Asian family he destroyed. (According to a California Supreme Court ruling, Williams boasted of killing "a large number of Orientals.") This lack of true remorse has of course not slowed down Tookie's promoters. An angry Susan Fisher of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau observes that, "when someone has committed a really horrible crime, [and] they do something while they're in prison that is a good thing, instead of an evil thing, . . . everyone wants to be so thrilled by that and act like that is so special, as if it somehow negates what they've done in the past."
Robert Martin, the former assistant district attorney who prosecuted Williams, notes that "the first step that you take for redemption . . . is to face the factual situation that you did this, . . . and then take the next step which is to show that remorse and heartfelt feeling toward one family he completely ruined and the family of Alvin Owens."
Unfortunately, Williams can't say he is sorry because he has yet to admit that he killed Owens and the Yangs. During his trial, Tookie employed what prosecutors call "the alibi defense," producing a girlfriend who said she was with him the night of the 7-Eleven killing, and a stepfather who saw him in a bar parking lot before the motel slaughter. But these witnesses weren't enough to counter other witnesses and physical evidence. As Martin explained, Tookie thought forensics experts couldn't link shotgun shells to a particular weapon.
Yet, Tookie fights on. For the media, he styles himself an intellectual inmate. Last week he told the New York Times, "One's existence is really determined by one's mental train of thought." On the legal front, however, his attorneys have found experts who will testify the defendant was brain damaged either during the trial -- and hence was unable to defend himself -- or at the times when he killed those people, depending on the expert. U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson explained, "Petitioner claims his constitutional rights were violated because he was tried while incompetent. In addition, petitioner claims his due process rights were violated when his trial attorney failed to request a competency hearing and the trial court failed to sua sponte conduct a competency hearing." Or as Martin quipped, "He's written the books, but he's brain damaged."
One psychiatrist told the court Williams "lacked the mental faculties to assist counsel." This same doctor concluded he "did not premeditate, deliberate, and meaningfully and maturely reflect upon the gravity of the acts at the time of the crimes for which he was charged." Another said that he may have understood how serious the trial was, but that his ability to assist his lawyer was nonetheless impaired. A neuropsychiatrist concluded that "organic brain damage" made it likely that Williams could not assist in his defense. Two psychiatrists -- to their credit -- figured that the crimes proved that Williams was capable of premeditation, and hence could not have been mentally impaired.
His defenders, however, remain unfazed. When I asked Becnel to explain his brain damage, she hung up on me. The fact remains that she is publicizing the moral and intellectual achievements of a convicted murderer whose lawyers are arguing that he is brain damaged.
Unsurprisingly, law enforcement officials are not convinced that Tookie's reformation is for real. In fact, Williams has before convinced thug-huggers that he has gone straight, only to be found far from the path of wisdom. In a superb 1989 story, Los Angeles Times writer Dan Morain reported that in the mid-70s Williams went, as a skeptical deputy put it, "semi-legit" and had worked as a counselor urging kids to leave gangs. But, the deputy explained, PCP had a bad effect on Williams, who lost his youth counseling job when he was seen running naked down the street screaming.
During his murder trial, Williams was behaving in a way that led one psychiatrist to assert he was "unaware of the proceedings at the time." How odd then that, as a fellow inmate told authorities, the "unaware" Williams was at the same time scheming to break out of jail. The complex plan called for Williams to disarm the driver of the bus that ferried inmates between jail and court, and kill an inmate who was to testify against him. In 1989, Tookie was again telling the world that he had no continuing role in the Crips. But when a fellow inmate stabbed him, officials determined that the incident arose from an in-gang power struggle.
San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon reports, "We have received information as recent as June 2000 from other inmates in other prisons that he is the leader of the Blue Note Crips," a prison branch of the Los Angeles gang. What about Tookie's denials? Crittendon responds, "Find me a gang leader who says he's a gang leader."
Debra J. Saunders writes a syndicated column for the San Francisco Chronicle.