FOR ALL OF ITS QUIRKS, California is no different from other states in that policy debates unfold neatly along liberal and conservative creases. Except when it comes to the death penalty. It's the rare California issue on which a majority of Republicans and Democrats historically have agreed. A Field Poll taken in March 2004 found that 68 percent of Californians supported capital punishment. That included 87 percent of Republicans and 54 percent of Democrats. In the past 35 years support for the death penalty has not dipped below 60 percent in California. Even a half-century ago 49 percent of Californians told the Field Poll they were pro-capital punishment and only 29 percent objected to it.
That will be one set of numbers weighing on Arnold Schwarzenegger as he holds a clemency hearing Thursday for the convicted murderer Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who's scheduled to be executed by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. next Tuesday. (California is one of 14 states where the governor has sole authority to grant clemency, which in this case would reduce the death sentence life in prison without parole.)
Williams, a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Crips gang, has become a celebrity thanks to the nine books he's written renouncing gang violence while on Death Row. Williams has been nominated nine times for a Nobel Prize nomination (four for literature; five for the peace prize). A year ago, a movie version of his life story was made--Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story--starring Jamie Foxx.
Not surprisingly, his pending execution has produced an assortment of anti-death penalty histrionics. This week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held "Save Tookie" press conferences and rallies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and San Diego. Earlier this month, Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger met with Williams behind bars, while rapper Snoop Dogg held a rally in front of San Quentin State Prison, where Williams is housed and California's executions are held. Other entertainers rallying for clemency include Ed Asner, Russell Crowe, Ted Danson, Richard Dreyfuss, Mike Farrell, Laurence Fishbourne, Danny Glover, Elliott Gould, and Tim Robbins. More than 30,000 people have signed a "Save Tookie" petition at his website, www.tookie.com.
SO FAR--San Quentin vigils, celerity outrage--it's par for the course as far as California executions go. But the controversy surrounding Williams' scheduled execution is unusual in at least three respects.
First, there is the hearing itself. Schwarzenegger has denied clemency to other Death Row inmates twice in the past 20 months. On neither occasion did he give the scheduled execution this much personal scrutiny--in fact, not since 1992 has a California governor called for a meeting between attorneys representing both the state and a Death Row inmate. Normally, it's just a formality in which officials from the state's Board of Prison Terms explain one last time to the governor why capital punishment is merited.
The second oddity is the notion that the condemned's redemption is grounds for clemency. When governors do issue stays of execution they generally have to do with either a question of evidence-gathering or judicial fairness (which was Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's reason for granting clemency earlier this month) or the inmate's state of mind. In 1967, for example, then-California Gov. Ronald granted clemency for Calvin Thomas, who was brain-damaged.
WILLIAMS'S CLAIM of redemption is anything but simple. He still maintains that he had nothing to do with the four homicides that earned him his trip to Death Row. Williams was convicted of slaying a 7-Eleven clerk during a robbery in February 1979 and, two weeks later, killing three family members living in a motel on South Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles. In both cases, the victims were killed at short range by shotgun blasts; $120 and $100 were stolen from the two murder scenes. Williams contends that he was wrongly tied to the crimes through dubious forensics, unreliable prison snitches, and racially-biased prosecutors. But that hasn't impressed the courts. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal claiming that Williams' prosecutor used racist tactics. Last week, the California Supreme Court rejected an appeal alleging poor forensic tests.
There's also a question of whether Williams is indeed the model citizen he now claims to be. Some law enforcement officials insist the "original gangster" is still involved with the Crips, which emerged as a dominated gang in LA in the 1970s (to look menacing, Williams and fellow gang members would lift weights at Venice Beach and walk around with Doberman pinschers).
The third variable in the equation is the governor's uncertain political state of mind (in his memoir, Blue Rage, Black Redemption, Williams claims he met the future governor during their mutual Muscle Beach days--a claim Schwarzenegger denies).
Since his drubbing in November's special election, Schwarzenegger has put his Republican base on edge by signaling a desire to be more conciliatory toward to the legislature (translation: move to the left). Republicans activists who were praising the Governator for taking on public-employee unions a month ago now deride him for hiring a longtime Democrat operative, Susan Kennedy, as his new chief of staff. She's an alumna of Gray Davis' administration and a former executive director of the California Democratic party.
Emboldened by November's results, Democrats are pressuring Schwarzenegger on two fronts. The first is taxes: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez wants to raise taxes on the wealthy for K-12 public education; State Treasurer Phil Angelides wants higher taxes applied to general spending; and actor/director Rob Reiner is pushing a June 2006 ballot measure that would raise taxes for universal preschool for 4-year-olds.
With Schwarzenegger at a crossroads and looking to regain his popularity, does sparing Williams present a chance to score points with the left? He wouldn't be catering to majority sentiment--only 31 percent of Californians (including 42 percent of Democrats) disagree that the death penalty has been meted out unfairly.
The governor's own words don't offer much of a clue. Here's what he told a San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board earlier this year regarding capital punishment: "I grew up with the mentality that this is an absolute no-no. And so you're dealing with that, which is very odd. I mean, very few people have that chance to live in a body with kind of two brains. Kind of like the Austrian brain and the American brain. . . . They're fighting with each other all the time, you know, where I can argue with myself about those things."
Should he decide to break new ground and opt for clemency, Arnold could find himself in a much bigger argument with the electorate.
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.