Readers of Sunday's New York Times Magazine were treated this week to a tidy puff piece about Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the San Quentin inmate now on Death Row for killing four strangers in two 1979 robberies.
Paging through the piece, readers learned that Tookie, a co-founder of the Crips street gang, co-wrote a series of books that warn children to stay away from gangs and crime, and that explain the horrors of prison life. They also read that a decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit suggested that Tookie might be a worthy candidate for clemency because of his "laudable efforts opposing gang violence"; that Tookie was thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; that there is an upcoming TV production on Williams' "tale of heroic transformation" -- but that Tookie won't see it because "he has no access to cable TV."
Author Kimberley Sevcik described how Williams "walks slowly, magisterially, his broad chest thrust forward, his nose tilted ever so slightly upward. ... His mauve wire-rimmed glasses give him a scholarly air. But it's his voice that surprises me: not quite gentle, but disarmingly soft."
The story does report that Tookie and friends robbed a 7-Eleven store, and that "court records describe" how Tookie shot 26-year-old clerk Albert Owens in the back twice as Owens was lying face-down on the floor. Two weeks later, during a motel robbery, Tookie shot dead proprietors Yen-I Yang and Tsai-Shai Yang, as well as their daughter, Ye Chen Lin. Sevcik also reported that Tookie denies killing these four innocent people.
Here's what the New York Times story didn't tell you.
The story failed to mention that physical evidence tied Tookie to the crimes. Or that Tookie's many appeals and evidentiary hearings failed to overturn the guilty verdict or sentence.
The story does not mention that Tookie's latest appeal argued not that he's innocent -- but that he suffered from organic brain damage, which made him mentally incompetent, either during trial or when he committed the crimes.
Hmmmm. Williams' defense argues he suffered organic brain damage -- and yet The New York Times reported he reads up on black history, philosophy and world religion, and co-wrote a series of books.
The headline asked, "Has Stanley Williams Left the Gang?" San Quentin spokesman Vernell Crittendon believes that if Tookie had left the Crips, he would have helped authorities dismantle the gang to stop terror, drug blight and drive-by shootings in the black community.
Worst of all, while the story described the hardships Tookie must endure in prison, there is no mention of the demons and tragic loss endured by the families of his victims. The Yangs' son, Robert, was in another room when the shootings occurred. Tookie's prosecutor, the now-retired Robert Martin, noted: "I remember Robert Yang was highly criticized by his family members for not doing something. That was very unfair."
I talked to Owens' daughter, Becki, over the phone. Becki was 8, her sister was 5, when Albert Owens died. He had been saving up money to bring his children to California to live with them and was six months from his goal.
His death, Becki believes, kept the girls with their mother and the men who went in and out of her life. As a result of her childhood, Becki said, "men were not really trusted."
Asked what she thought of Tookie groupies, Becki answered, "I would like to have them think about how, if it had been their father ripped from them, if every hope they had ever had was taken away from them in a split-second, where they would stand."
And: "What I really would like people to know is that I don't hate the man. I hate the fact that he's not being held accountable for his own actions."
Wes McBride, president of the California Association for Gang Investigators, observed that if Tookie won his appeals, he would be set free. As for Tookie's apology (for crimes that didn't put him in prison), McBride said, "I really don't doubt that he's sorry that he's where he's at."
The New York Times asked: "Is character fixed or mutable? Can a person who is capable of tremendous harm also be capable of tremendous good?"
I believe even violent people can change. The question is: Has Tookie changed?
Or how about: Why can't death-penalty opponents find a killer who has expressed remorse for his known crimes to nominate for the Nobel Peace Prize?
Better yet: Does having your name on a book jacket remove the stain of snuffing out the lives of four innocent people?