FOR CONDEMNED INMATE Stanley “Tookie” Williams, life has been anything but ordinary, even by the quixotic standards of San Quentin's death row.
After being sentenced to death for four murders nearly a quarter-century ago, the co-founder of the Crips street gang gained notoriety when he was twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his series of children's books denouncing gang violence.
But amid all the attention, Williams, now 49 and one of the longest-serving inmates on California's death row, has failed to reach his ultimate goal: release from the row. Each of his numerous claims of innocence, attorney misconduct and racially biased jury selection has been denied.
Now, with his name at the top of the list of those nearing execution, Williams has new reason for hope. Last week, the nation's highest court said lower courts must consider serious claims of racial discrimination in jury selection, breathing new life into that long-standing assertion on the Williams case.
Speaking on a pay phone from death row, Williams said he was hopeful that the ruling would help him. “You can believe this is no desperate, last-ditch effort,” he said. “It is definitely apropos of my case.”
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the Texas capital case of Thomas Joe Miller-El found that strong evidence of racial bias is sufficient grounds for a federal appeal. A new trial is not guaranteed, but the defendant is at least entitled to challenge the way jurors were selected.
Andrea Asaro, an attorney who joined Williams' case last month, said that the juror-selection question is one of several on which her client is seeking relief. “We think we have several very strong claims,” she said. “What we're asking, just as Miller-El was, is for the chance to address those claims.” Asaro plans to file a request for review with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals by the end of March.
Though three African-Americans were considered as potential jurors at Williams' trial, all were removed by the prosecutor, an assistant district attorney in L.A. County who has had two other death sentences overturned after the courts found racial bias in jury selection. Attorneys have long sought to have Williams' case added to that list, but say they have been stymied by the courts' refusal to grant access to the prosecutor's files, internal memos and personal notes that could support such an appeal.
In a brief filed last fall in support of Williams' racial-bias claim, Alan L. Schlosser of the ACLU said that the dismissal of potential African-American jurors may have compromised the trial. “In a death penalty trial, [racial discrimination] increases the likelihood that arbitrary or constitutionally impermissible factors will come into play,” Schlosser wrote.
In closing arguments on the Williams case, Schlosser said, prosecutor Robert Martin likened the defendant, a large, muscular black man, to a “Bengal tiger in captivity in a zoo.” Martin went on to suggest that if the jurors saw Williams “in his environment,” it would be like “going into the back country, into the hinterlands.”
The two Martin cases in which the capital convictions were overturned bear similarities to the Williams case. The defendants in each were minorities. In one of the cases, as in the Williams case, at least one of the victims was white. All three cases were tried in the early 1980s.
The second time the California Supreme Court censured Martin, Justice Stanley Mosk took him to task in a scathing rebuke. “Only a few months earlier, this court attempted to teach this same prosecutor that invidious discrimination was unacceptable when we reversed a judgment of death because of similar improper conduct on his part,” Mosk wrote, in an opinion concurring with the majority. “He failed — or refused — to learn his lesson. The result is another reversal — and another costly burden on the administration of justice.”
Martin, who is 80 and retired, said that during his 22 years with the L.A. County D.A.'s Office, he prosecuted and won three other death-penalty cases. Martin said he could not remember why he removed each of the black jurors in the Williams case. He added that several of the jurors on the case have since died and that he destroyed his notes on jury selection as soon as the trial was over.
He objected to any suggestion that his jury-selection techniques were ever racially motivated. “I absolutely deny that there was any racial bias in selecting the jury in any of my cases,” Martin said. “The last refuge of a scoundrel is to cry racism. I don't think that Stanley Williams' guilt has ever been a serious issue before any court.”
Prison employees have accused Williams of leading a gang behind prison walls and protest any positive portrayal of him in the press, saying it disrespects the victims of the murders committed 24 years ago this week. Williams was convicted of robbing and shooting to death motel operators Thsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin in Los Angeles as well as 7-Eleven employee Albert Lewis Owens in Whittier.
Williams said he did not commit the murders and called the gang accusations “pseudo-allegations” discredited by the very fact that he was allowed to speak on the phone. “There is no way in the world I would be talking to you if those allegations were true,” he said, the phone beeping every few seconds to indicate that the prison was recording the conversation. “I would not be in this unit. I'm in East Block. Grade A. Grade A have privileges. There is no way in the world that these prison officials will laud me for the things that I do, regardless of how positive they are, because of the simple fact that this is a place for execution. This is a place where they take life, not give life. By demonizing me it justifies their executing me.”
Martin maintains that the question of juror bias cannot be appealed, because Williams' attorney failed to raise it at the original trial. Frank Zimring, a professor at Berkeley's Boalt Hall who specializes in criminal law, said he tended to agree. “The Supreme Court was responding to the Texas system, and whatever you want to say about the horrors of the California system, Texas is worse,” he said. “A lot of it depends on what kind of a showing for him his lawyers can make. I'm not sure what they've got will help in California.”
Williams' attorneys hope to prove the naysayers wrong. “I don't think there is a procedural problem with the case,” Asaro said. “Even if there were, we think the evidence is sufficient to merit a review.”
In the meantime, Williams tries not to dwell on legal details. He keeps himself busy by reading, praying and working on new material for his Web site, Tookie's Corner. His latest project is a collection of essays titled “Thoughts of Thunder.” “I'll just continue to do the things that I'm doing,” he said. “It's a battle and I'm up for it. I'm optimistic. I have to be.”
Christine Pelisek contributed to this story. To read excerpts from the interviews with Stanley Williams and Robert Martin, go to “What They Said”. To read more of Sara Catania's coverage of death row coverage, go to the Death Penalty Archive