Monday afternoon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California refused to grant clemency to death-row inmate Stanley Tookie Williams. "Is Williams' redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?" Schwarzenegger queried. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption." Schwarzenegger also wrote that the facts of the case could not justify a grant of clemency.
Schwarzenegger made the right move. Williams, who co-founded the brutal Crips gang in 1971, murdered four people in 1979, including a father, mother and daughter working at a motel. He was convicted by a jury of his peers in 1981 and has spent the last two decades in jail awaiting execution. He has never admitted culpability for the slayings of four innocents, and he has exhausted the appeals system. Due process of law has undoubtedly taken place here -- far more than due process, in fact.
Every time a death-row inmate is executed, there are those who claim that he or she is innocent. For the most prominent inmates, movements begin to save them. The usual pressure point for such movements is the executive of the state involved. In California, the governor is empowered by the state constitution to "grant a reprieve, pardon, and commutation, after sentence, except in case of impeachment," subject to certain conditions. On the federal level, the president is empowered to grant pardons by Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution.
A simple question must be asked: Why? Why should a prisoner, granted due process of law, be given the opportunity to plead his case before a political actor? If our system of law is designed to be impartial, why make it openly political by granting interest groups the opportunity to lobby an executive who might be beholden to them? Would Schwarzenegger have hesitated about signing off on the execution of a white man convicted of killing a black family? Would he have pondered the ins and outs of a criminal conviction if Hollywood stars like Jamie Foxx and cultural figures like Sister Helen Prejean had not stepped forward to defend Tookie? Would Schwarzenegger have glanced at the clemency petition without the glare of the media spotlight?
Engraved on the Supreme Court building facade is the phrase "Equal justice under law." But is it truly equal justice when some -- the most famous, the most controversial -- receive the actual benefit of executive clemency while others do not? And is it equal justice when the people of California or the people of the United States allow a convict due process, only to see their process overturned by a single pen stroke?