I have a lot of friends who believe in capital punishment as an institution -- good friends, liberals as well as conservatives like Michelle. My wife, in fact, considers capital punishment a necessary evil. It's no surprise -- most polls show that over 60% of Americans support the death penalty, at least in extreme cases (rape, brutal murder, etc.), and some polls put that number at 70% or more.
For reasons as varied as they are nuanced, I'm not among them (I've talked about this on CSP before). This weekend my wife and I were talking about California's death penalty, and, since he's been in our minds lately (thanks in no small part to Michelle's essay) Stanley Williams, and Shannon asked if I thought he deserved to die. As an opponent of capital punishment, I replied that I didn't think he should be killed, not by the government -- that killing was wrong. Shan responded that that wasn't what she'd asked. She was right -- I'd dodged the question.
Here's the deal -- I think the question is wrong.
If we ask ourselves, "does Stanley 'Tookie' Williams deserve to die," whatever our opinion of capital punishment, the answer is probably, "yes." Did he help create, and did he lead the Crips, a violent, bloody gang which has spread not only to nearly every major U.S. city, but, in recent decades, foreign countries? Yes. Did he lead a life of theft, violence, drugs and probably bloodshed? Yes. Did he kill a shopkeeper in cold blood for $63? Did he kill a motel manager and his family with a shotgun just over a week later? Yes. Well, probably. He says he did not, but jury after jury after judge after jury has said he did. Do the families of the victims want him to finally be put to death? Yes. And so, does Tookie deserve to die?
What if we ask a different question? What if, instead of asking what Tookie Williams deserves, we ask whether killing Tookie Williams will benefit our society. On the one hand, Tookie is likely a murderer, and is costing the taxpayers over $30,000 a year (that's a guess based upon what I've read about California's penal system) for his room and board. Killing him gets us $30k a year, for as long as he would continue to live.
But, alive, is Tookie Williams is worth more than that? Williams has renounced his life of violence and crime and apologized for his wrongs and the wrongs the Crips have done everywhere. Through the nine children's books he has written, his autobiography and his public letters to American youth, he encourages young people to avoid the mistakes he made. By coming clean on the humiliation and hardship of incarceration, he seeks to counteract the current glorification of the gangster lifestyle. In his open letters to incarcerated youth, he encourages young people who have started down the wrong path to right themselves, and helps them understand how they can use their forced time away from society to educate themselves and free themselves from mental slavery and bad social habits, so that they can have a better chance at being productive members of society when they are released. He has helped broker a tentative truce between longtime gang rivals, the Bloods and the Crips. The money made from the sale of his books goes toward anti-gang organizations in Los Angeles and other major cities. He has been nominated (though has never been in serious contention) for the Nobel Peace Prize on multiple occasions, and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Look, I'm not saying Williams should be set free. His incarceration is his punishment for the murder of four people (and, whatever rosy pictures some proponents of capital punishment may paint of life imprisonment, any reasonable person can see that life in San Quentin is a hard, humiliating, desperate one). But if his message has helped even one young person avoid the life he led (and many people claim that they were helped by Tookie), then that should offset the cost of keeping him alive, right? If every year one person decides not to pursue a life of crime, or turns away from a dangerous life already begun, it seems that's a good reason to keep him around, at least for another year, right?
And what if we do kill him early next month? Will the families of the victims finally have closure? Maybe. Will it bring back those he killed? No. Will it give despair to those for whom Tookie's message meant hope for better lives for themselves and their families? Maybe. Will it end any chance that Williams will continue to do good in an attempt to offset the evil he has already done? Absolutely.
So, will we, as a society, be better off if we kill Stanley "Tookie" Williams? I believe we will not. Despite my opposition to capital punishment in general, I understand the impulse to want Williams put to death. I understand the impulse to answer those who so violate our basic human compact, who murder, who rape, by ending their lives. I understand the desire to punish with violence, to seek vengeance. On principle, I hope our society can one day rise above that impulse.
In the meantime, let us at least try not to act against our own self-interest. We'll be better off with Tookie alive, behind bars, trying to make up for the life he led. Let's leave him that way.