The questions are dead serious

What qualifies as redemption? Does it matter?

On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 13, Stanley “Tookie” Williams was put to death by the state of California; he had spent more than a quarter century on San Quentin’s death row. A former gangbanger who admits to being responsible for co-founding the Crips, one of the nation’s most vicious and violent street gangs, Williams was sentenced to death in 1981 for the senseless murder of four people who posed no threat to him whatsoever. Williams proclaimed his innocence up until the bitter end, swearing he did not commit the crimes, despite some rather compelling evidence.

If Williams had remained the man he was when arrested all those years ago, if he’d never tried to be something other than a Crip executive, then few of us would have ever heard of the man. What made Williams so different in the eyes of many — and therefore worthy of clemency — was his change of heart while behind bars. During a telephone interview with the radio talk show Democracy Now — his last interview — Williams said that the man he had grown into in his 50s bore no resemblance to the muscle-bound predator who had entered San Quentin at age 29. Williams had become an author of children’s books designed to steer young people away from gangs, and he was instrumental from behind bars in brokering a peace treaty between the Crips and their archenemies the Bloods. He had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize five times. He had won supporters from around the world — black and white alike — who pointed to Williams’ good works as evidence of a man redeemed, a man who could do so much more for the world alive rather than dead. As the hour of his execution loomed near, his case became the subject of heated and polarizing debate even among blacks, not all of whom believed that Williams’ life should be spared simply because he was a brother who said he got a raw deal. Many of us know brothers behind bars who say they got a raw deal. Matter of fact, I don’t think you can find a single brother behind bars who says his case was handled just as it should have been and society is better off with him where he is. Sure, it’s great that Williams dedicated himself so wholeheartedly to saving the children, but if he really did commit the crimes of which he was accused, then is redemption enough? I know California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he didn’t even believe Williams had been truly redeemed, but even if he had seen the light, should that have been enough?

It’s a hard question, perhaps brutal, but it’s a question that requires an answer. And, perhaps like some of you, I find myself conflicted in figuring that answer out.

Here are some of the arguments that rage back and forth in my own head when I wrestle with this issue:


Fallibility: On a personal note, I have never been a supporter of the death penalty, and have said as much more than once in this column. It isn’t that I don’t believe some folks need to be disposed of. Some do. The problem is that the death penalty, as it currently operates, makes too many mistakes, and one mistake is too many when somebody’s life is hanging in the balance. There are far too many documented cases where the wrong person was executed for a crime, and I believe that until a system is designed that operates flawlessly and never executes the wrong person, then the entire death penalty system needs to be scrapped. We cannot afford to shrug our shoulders and say “oops” every time another human being is accidentally killed with the sanction of our own government.

Race and class: The only reason there isn’t more of an outcry about this today — and the only reason such a high standard isn’t insisted upon — is because it is only the poor, many of them African-American, who populate America’s death rows. Nobody cares. If you don’t believe me, check this out. According to the grassroots organization Campaign to End the Death Penalty (, “Over 90 percent of defendants charged with capital punishment are indigent and cannot afford to hire an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent them. They are often assigned inexperienced and underpaid court-appointed attorneys.”

Furthermore, “African-Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population but are 43 percent of prisoners on death row. Although blacks constitute 50 percent of all murder victims, 83 percent of the victims in death penalty cases are white. In all, only 37 percent of the over 18,000 executions in this country’s history involved a white person being punished for killing.” And to top it all off: “Since 1976, more than 82 people have been released from prison after being sentenced to death despite their innocence. In other words, 1 in 7 of those on death row have been freed after being fully exonerated.”

Do you honestly believe that if death row were populated by the children of the well-to-do that America would tolerate this kind of crap?

Closer to home: If I knew for a fact that a particular individual had purposely murdered a member of my family, I can honestly say no amount of redemption would ever satisfy me. Matter of fact, I would probably start a campaign to legalize torture because death is just too damned easy. Yeah, I know. That’s cold. But I’m just being honest. You kill one of mine, I couldn’t care less what happens to you.

The question of redemption: On a moral level, wanting to believe that all human beings, no matter how misguided, possess the inherent potential to recognize and correct their failings, I want to say that redemption does matter. If there is no forgiveness in the world, then we are all damned. If none of us is willing to allow for the capacity for growth and to allow people to atone for their missteps, then all of us need to be perfect from birth. And if all of Williams’ positive acts — and all of the additional positive acts he may have produced had he not been put to death — are collectively not enough to signify sufficient redemption, then what would the proper amount have been? Schwarzenegger said that Williams’ refusal to admit to his guilt and to accept responsibility for the ugly deeds of the gang he co-founded is all the proof he needs that Williams is not a redeemed man. So does that mean an admission of guilt — whether or not he was actually guilty — is more valuable than the lives he touched, and possibly saved, once he began his anti-gang crusade? How do you weigh these things?


If all of this sounds like I’m straddling the fence, or maybe a couple of fences, it’s only because I am. I’m opposed to the death penalty because of its fallibility and its biases, and, if I could, I’d close down all the death rows. And I believe in the power of redemption, or at least I want to. But I’m also human and no matter how hard I try I simply can’t stop asking myself how forgiving I would have been if those four folks had been members of my own family. How willing would I have been to accept children’s books as compensation if I honestly believed Williams was the man who killed one of mine for no reason at all? When I allow myself to be still, I sometimes think I can hear a voice saying that true redemption should be valued, and that few if any of us are qualified to question a person’s claim that he or she has found it.

But it’s very hard for me to keep still sometimes.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Metro Detroit News articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.