Williams, Stanley Tookie, III
Williams, Stanley Tookie, III
(b. 29 December 1953 in New Orleans, Louisiana; d. 13 December 2005 in San Quentin, California), cofounder of the Crips street gang, sentenced to death for multiple 1979 killings, who in prison wrote children’s books and became an advocate to stop gang violence.
Williams, despite being named after his father, was brought up in New Orleans by his mother, who gave birth at seventeen. The single-parent family, concerned with escaping from the lack of opportunity and trapped by poverty and a crime pandemic, relocated to South Central Los Angeles in 1959. They lived in a duplex on Forty-third Street. The change of home base did little to improve the family’s plight. Williams was more than just a delinquent. He embraced a lifestyle that energized him, stealing, robbing, and shooting at will. He attended John C. Fremont High School but was expelled. Intensive bodybuilding allowed him to bulk up to 300 pounds and develop biceps that measured a menacing twenty-two inches. Periods of time in Los Angeles’s Central Juvenile Hall did nothing to calm his rage and destructive energy. With the fellow street youth Raymond Lee Washington, Williams used his charismatic presence to launch in 1971 a gang—originally known as the Cribs—that as the Crips became a symbol of terror in Los Angeles.
Williams was sentenced to death for the 1979 killings of Albert Owens; Yen-I Yang; his wife, Tsai-Shai Chen Yang; and their daughter, Yu-Chin Yang. While all of the murders were vicious and carried out brutally without any extenuating circumstances, the slaying of Owens was the incident that criminal prosecutors found particularly heinous. Williams and three gang members, fueled on drugs, decided to rob a 7-Eleven store in Whittier, California. Williams walked into the store wielding a shotgun and ordered the twenty-six-year-old white clerk, Owens, to lie down. He chambered a round into the shotgun, fired at and destroyed a security monitor, chambered a second round, and fired it into Lewis’s back as he lay prone. Another shot was fired. Official court records recount how Williams bragged to his brother Wayne about the killing and offered up his motive: “[Lewis] was white and [Williams] was killing all white people.”
In the two decades that Williams spent on the Californian death row, his life, he claimed, underwent a metamorphosis. The African-American journalist Joseph C. Phillips in a Chicago Defender editorial argues that Williams, an astute self promoter, successfully portrayed himself as a “pied piper of peace for the gang community.” In any event, during his many years of incarceration, Williams wrote a series of influential children’s books and became a persuasive voice, not just on the matter of gang violence, but also on the much more complex issue of directing gang members to be positive role models and contributing members of society. Many of his books were coauthored with Barbara Cottman Becnel. While detractors point to the fact that these books have had minimal sales, the sheer volume of the work and its focus on turning around the traditional gang ethos deserves careful analysis. Future biographers of Williams will need to delve into these primary sources to gain a more complete picture of a complex psyche. Among the Williams/Becnel titles are Redemption: From Original Gangster to Nobel Prize Nominee: The Extraordinary Life Story of Stanley Tookie Williams (1996), Gangs and Weapons (1996), Gangs and the Abuse of Power (1996), Gangs and Your Neighborhood (1996), Gangs and Your Friends (1996), Gangs and Wanting to Belong (1996), Gangs and Self-Esteem (1996), Gangs and Drugs (1996), Life in Prison (1998), and Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir (2005).
The years of prison life reconfigured Williams in more than just philosophical positioning. The young man who arrived on death row—ranting, raving, and lifting weights compulsively to make himself a more intimidating presence—by fifty-one was a balding, gray-bearded prison writer whose armor was neither angst nor the shotgun but a steady stare and the knowledge that he had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2005 Williams and his impending execution became a front-page headline phenomenon as powerful opposing groups sought to either robustly see the court sentence carried out or gain clemency based on twenty years of social good and a life redeemed. A key feature of the Williams renaissance was that, in interviews and his various written narratives, while he eschewed all forms of violence, he never stated or showed remorse and stoutly held to the claim of innocence concerning the four murders of 1979.
As 2005 waned, support for Williams grew. Among others, the actors Jamie Foxx, Mike Farrell, Danny Glover, and Sean Penn made their voices heard as they campaigned for Williams’s life. The rap artist Snoop Dogg, a former Crip and a major force in black youth culture, stood outside the walls of San Quentin State Prison and urged California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency. Websites allowed Americans electronically to signal their support for Williams. A typical example read, “Please grant clemency to death row inmate Stanley Tookie Williams. He is helping to save troubled youth across the world.... Please do not let a good man die.”
But a last-minute plea by Williams and his legal team did not alter the governor’s stand. In a statement released less than a day before the planned execution, Schwarzenegger questioned the inmate’s sincerity: “Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption.”
Early on the morning of 13 December 2005 Williams was executed by lethal injection in the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. In an interview with the New York Times, he had discussed his impending execution: “To threaten me with death does not accomplish the means of the criminal justice system.... I didn’t do it. My death would not mollify.”
The debate on the death of Williams continues to revolve around the notion of a cold-blooded killer experiencing a “Road to Damascus” turnaround while in prison. Should the legal system pay attention to good works in a postcriminal career? Does execution deter murder? Joanne Shepherd comments quizzically in the Christian Science Monitor, “the execution of Williams may save the lives of other potential murder victims. Only time, and future empirical analysis, will tell.”
Williams was mourned by some 1,500 visitors to his funeral at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles. As was his request, his remains were cremated and his ashes taken to South Africa. He was survived by his former wife, Bonnie Williams Taylor, whom he married in 1981 and later divorced, and two sons.
Arguably, the biggest moral dilemma posed by Williams’s death is less about him, his crimes, and his redemption, and more about a legal system that lumbered along to such poor effect that it took nearly a quarter of a century to finalize his punishment. The other side to the Williams legacy is the fact that in South Central Los Angeles the Crips are held responsible for hundreds of killings over the past twenty-five years. Despite Williams’s peace initiatives, his gang creation has continued to create mayhem.
Information on Williams and his legal case is in Joseph C. Phillips, “Tookie Goes Hollywood,” Chicago Defender (12–13 Dec. 2005); Phillips is a Williams critic and sees him as a cold-blooded killer rather than a “pied piper of peace.” Sarah Kershaw reviews the clemency debate and includes significant statements made by family members victimized by Williams, his lawyers, and Williams himself in “California Gang Founder Loses Death Row Appeal,” New York Times (13 Dec. 2005). See also Joanna Shepherd, “Why Not All Executions Deter Murder,” Christian Science Monitor (14 Dec. 2005).
Scott A. G. M. Crawford