The celebrity rush to save the life of convicted murderer and gang founder Tookie Williams may be the best argument yet for eliminating the death penalty.
Dead, he's a martyr; alive and confined for life, he's just another nobody.
I have no wish to further elevate Williams in the public eye, but the circus surrounding his Dec. 13 execution date forces reflection.
First my bias and other disclaimers: I'm a relatively recent convert from the slow-gas-leak solution to death row crowding to a reluctant capital punishment opponent. I oppose the death penalty for one reason: The state makes mistakes, and one innocent murdered by the state is too many.
Do I think Tookie is innocent of killing four people, as the case against him made clear? No, I don't. All appeals to higher courts, including the reliably liberal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, confirm that his trial was fair and his verdict just.
Does he deserve to live? My emotions say "no." My reason skips to a different question, one that National Journal White House correspondent Carl Cannon posed in the National Review (June 19, 2000) article that helped shift my thinking:
"The right question to ask is not whether capital punishment is an appropriate - or a moral - response to murders," Cannon wrote. "It is whether the government should be in the business of executing people convicted of murder knowing to a certainty that some of them are innocent."
That certainty has been established by DNA tests showing that many death row inmates did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Case closed.
The painful part of this position is that we who oppose capital punishment on these grounds have to breathe the same air as the celebrities, political panderers and other hankie-twisters who materialize every time a "Tookie" runs out of options and faces a far more humane death than that which he delivered to others.
To refresh your memory, Tookie - who founded the notoriously vicious Los Angeles gang the Crips - was convicted of killing four people during a murder-and-robbery spree in 1979 that netted him roughly $250.
His first victim was Albert Owens, a store clerk in Whittier, Calif., whom Tookie murdered to eliminate witnesses and "because he was white." The others were an elderly Chinese couple and their daughter, whom Williams referred to as "Buddha-heads." All were shot at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun.
At this point, most normal people are entertaining uncivilized thoughts about how best to dispose of such an person. Yet Williams' defenders insist he is reformed and point to children's books he has written in prison urging kids to stay away from gangs. They also point to his 1997 statement apologizing for his role in glamorizing the gang life, though he never apologized for his crimes.
The usual suspects have mobilized in his behalf, including Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, Bianca Jagger, Snoop Dogg (a fellow former Crip), Anjelica Huston, Desmond Tutu, '60s radical Tom Hayden and Mario Cuomo, to name a few.
Perhaps some of these celebrities share the same concerns I've expressed. But others, including an activist visiting California schools in recent days to enlist children in a "Save Tookie" campaign, make it difficult to steady one's hands and stick to one's convictions.
Stefanie Faucher, projects director for the grassroots group Death Penalty Focus, made one of her stops several days ago at an "alternative" Oakland high school, where she told students there was little evidence to convict Williams, despite what all those courts and judges had to say.
The class discussion rambled around a bit, making pit stops to bash President George W. Bush and criticize California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's language skills, before Faucher left with 29 letters petitioning the governor for clemency.
To those who skipped Snoop Dogg's "Save Tookie" rally, it seems clear that the courts have done their job and that Williams is guilty. But it is also abundantly clear that his death - and the dramas surrounding such executions - grant celebrity status to the least deserving among us.
Our first principle should be never to kill an innocent person, and thus err on the side of life. As recompense for delaying the dark gratification of revenge, we liberate ourselves from involuntary servitude as audience to those for whom Death Row has become a stage.
Finally, killers such as Tookie Williams, condemned to life without parole, vanish into the hell of obscurity where they belong.