Last-minute drive to save prisoners life

SAN FRANCISCO — The most impressive words of the evening came not from the podium, moving as the speakers were, but from a cell phone, barely audible in the Victoria Theater’s packed auditorium.

“I have great hope, and I extend my love and gratitude to you,” Stanley “Tookie” Williams told hundreds of supporters from his Death Row cell at San Quentin Prison. “I feel your support and faith.”

Convicted for four murders he says he did not commit, Williams has been on death row for 24 years. While in prison, he has turned his life around, speaking with troubled youth via videotape or phone and helping to arrange gang truces. The 10 books he has written for young people are used in many middle schools and high schools around the country. Two of the books have received awards, and Williams has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

“I talked with brothers in East Oakland, West Oakland — they know about Tookie,” independent filmmaker Kevin Epps told the crowd at the Dec. 4 event. “If we save his life, we save a generation.”

“The moral point is — why don’t we care about the kids Stan is reaching?” said Barbara Becnel, executive director of the Neighborhood House of North Richmond and co-author of nine of Williams’ books. She added, “The lives he will potentially save ought to mean something to the state of California.”

Actor Danny Glover, still breathless after rushing from the airport, stressed the immorality of the death penalty, and added, “Tookie’s voice talking to young people is part of the solution, along with the work we must all do in our communities.”

As Williams’ scheduled Dec. 13 execution looms ever closer, his supporters together with death penalty opponents in the U.S. and around the world are pressing California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant him clemency. Police groups and others are still pushing for the execution. A closed clemency hearing was set for Dec. 8.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina Dec. 2, Kenneth Lee Boyd became the 1,000th person to be executed in the U.S. since capital punishment was resumed 28 years ago, a milestone widely protested by death penalty opponents.

Williams, now 51, co-founded the Crips street gang in 1970. Although he has apologized for his role in forming the Crips, he says he will not express regret for murders he did not commit. The validity of the test identifying Williams’ shotgun as the murder weapon is in doubt, and his lawyer says the prosecution’s case was based on testimony of criminal informants with reasons to lie.

Williams has appealed his case repeatedly, charging the prosecutor at his trial kept African Americans off the jury and made racist arguments in court. His latest appeal was rejected by the California Supreme Court on Nov. 30.

Among Williams’ supporters are many public figures, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, entertainers Harry Belafonte, Bianca Jagger, Snoop Dogg, Russell Crowe and Ed Asner, along with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, former California state Sen. Tom Hayden and Los Angeles City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl.