The Magazine

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
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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.