There is undeniable hypocrisy in California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who built his fame by feeding adolescent fantasies of killing, denying clemency to a former Crips leader who counseled teenagers against gang violence.
The lethal injection California officials administered to Stanley “Tookie” Williams on December 13 has sparked a notably reinvigorated debate over the death penalty, driven as well by the execution of Vietnam combat veteran Kenneth Boyd in North Carolina on December 2, the 1,000th state killing since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976.
Like Karla Faye Tucker of Texas, whose plea for clemency in 1998 was famously mocked by then-Governor George W. Bush, Tookie Williams forced public debate over the notion of personal redemption. In denying clemency Schwarzenegger insisted that Williams’s many years of antigang mediation and writing could not signify redemption in the absence of admission of guilt–and Tookie Williams always insisted he was innocent of the four killings for which he was convicted.
One inevitably wonders if Schwarzenegger would really have ruled the other way if Williams had uttered a last-minute confession. The recent history of death row cases reveals that guilt–even with confession–is a profoundly error-prone finding, and thus a poor guide to mercy. Clemency, in any event, is not in law contingent upon either innocence or admission of guilt; in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, governors routinely set aside death sentences at a far higher rate than they do today.
In the past decade, exoneration of more than 120 innocent death row inmates has generated a widening unease with capital punishment. The executions of Williams and Boyd–a celebrated African-American and reformed gang leader in California and a little-known, white Vietnam veteran in North Carolina who insisted, with substantial reason, that combat trauma contributed to his violent record–together move the debate to a new question: whether the finality of execution is ever a just measure of the twists and turns of an offender’s life, or whether it is time to abandon a penalty that has outlived any purpose except blood vengeance.