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December 2, 2005
Celebrity Death Row Spotlights

It doesn't come up often at CQ, but most long-term readers know that I do not support the death penalty. I respect the enactment of it by the legislatures and feel that the penalties should not be subject to excessive legal and extralegal machinations, however, until such time as the people finally decide to get rid of executions altogether. Up to now, I've left the Tookie Williams controversy to those with more passion about carrying out his sentence, but Eugene Robinson wrote an excellent column for today's Washington Post that sums up my feelings on the subject. Titled "No Special Break For Tookie", death-penalty opponent Robinson lashes out at the celebritization of a thug and murderer by entertainment elite:

Big-time Hollywood stars, including Jamie Foxx, Snoop Dogg and Danny Glover, are leading a high-profile campaign to persuade another big-time Hollywood star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to save the life of a convicted murderer on California's death row named Stanley Tookie Williams. Sorry, but I can't join the glitterati in showing the love.

Williams's case is about the power of redemption, his supporters say, but I think it's more about the power of celebrity. The state shouldn't execute Williams, but only because the state shouldn't execute anybody -- the death penalty is a barbaric anachronism that should have been eliminated long ago, as far as I'm concerned. But it can't be right to save Williams just because he's a famous desperado (or former desperado) with famous friends, and then blithely go back to snuffing out the lives of other criminals who lack his talent for public relations. ...

He was convicted of the 1979 murders of four people in two separate robberies -- convenience store worker Albert Owens, 26; and motel owners Yen-I Yang, 76; Tsai-Shai Yang, 63; and their daughter Yee-Chen Lin, 43. Williams has been on death row since 1981; that he has consistently maintained his innocence of all four killings hardly makes him unique. There's no dramatic new DNA evidence or anything like that to cast doubt on his guilt.

What does make him special, according to his supporters, is that he has been so lavishly repentant about the culture of violence he helped create. ... Of course, there are hundreds of other men on death row who repent of their crimes and would appreciate a little executive clemency, but they don't have movie stars pleading their cases. Oh, and also lacking a publicity machine are the four people Williams was convicted of killing.

Robinson has more faith in real redemption on Death Row than I do, but that's not the basis of my objection to the death penalty anyway. (I don't believe that the state should deliberately kill anyone who presents no imminent danger to the internal peace of society, and an LWOP sentence in a properly run institution should guarantee that.) Whether or not Tookie sincerely repents of his crime to me is immaterial. He committed the crime, and four people are dead because of it -- four murders in two separate crimes, mind you. He did that knowing that the penalty for that action was death and he did it anyway. The people have the right to set that penalty, and it was properly implemented.

I would hope that at some time, the people of California will reject the death penalty. In the meantime, this selection of the Murderer Du Jour to lionize insults those of us who object to its application. I don't oppose the death sentence because I think Mumia got framed or that Tookie is the next Mohandas Gandhi, a truly repellent notion. Tookie Williams is exactly where he should be -- in a maximum-security facility -- and he should die there as well, of old age. He killed four people, four non-celebrities who never did anything to Tookie except stand between him and some cash that didn't belong to him.

(One other point: does anyone else notice that three of four of Tookie's victims were Asian shopowners? Angelenos know what that entails for the gang culture of LA. These weren't just gang-banging murders but hate-crime executions, just the same as the dragging death of James Byrd. I notice Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx aren't clamoring for those murderers to get clemency from the governor of Texas, so why are they arguing for Tookie?)

I don't support the death penalty. Unlike the clueless Hollywood celebrities who manage to hijack this issue, I don't view the condemned as victims and moral guideposts, either. The elevation of Tookie to philosopher disgusts and sickens me, and it undermines the efforts to convince people of the uselessness and overreach of the death penalty.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at December 2, 2005 7:00 AM

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