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Pending Execution of Gang Founder Heats Up Death Penalty Debate

The fight over whether California should carry out the execution of Crips street gang founder and convicted murderer Stanley “Tookie” Williams is drawing intense Jewish reaction and heightening debate of the death penalty.

Williams is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, December 13. With his appeals exhausted, only a federal court’s intervention or California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s grant of clemency can keep him from this fate. Schwarzenegger was set to meet behind closed doors December 8 with Williams’s attorneys, Los Angeles prosecutors and others connected to the case.

Williams, now 51, was convicted in 1981 of murdering four people in two separate robberies in 1979; he has continued to profess his innocence, but state and federal courts have upheld his convictions at every turn. He’s also admittedly the co-founder of the notorious Crips street gang, which spread from South Central Los Angeles to cities around the world, wreaking violence on communities near and far.

But since emerging from solitary confinement in 1994, Williams has become known as an anti-gang activist and author who supporters said directly or indirectly has inspired countless youths to straighten out their lives. He was nominated once for the Nobel Peace Prize by a Swiss lawmaker, and four times since by a group of American college educators. A philosophy professor at a Catholic university near San Francisco led the group.

Supporters see him as a beloved peacemaker, almost a guru; detractors see him as a manipulative, brutal thug worshipped by a liberal cult of personality. Either way, the battle over his fate has reinvigorated the debate over capital punishment in California and the United States.

The Progressive Jewish Alliance is among the groups pressuring Schwarzenegger on Williams’s behalf, sending him a letter urging clemency. More than 100 California rabbis of every denomination signed the letter. The alliance also is sponsoring a December 12 panel discussion on “the death penalty from the Jewish perspective” at a Marin County synagogue. Attendees are invited to go straight from there to the gates of San Quentin State Prison for an execution-night vigil.

The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles made the Williams debate its November 11 cover story, running opposing essays from the alliance’s executive director, Daniel Sokatch, and the state director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Larry Greenfield. Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman said that the issue “flew off our racks” and garnered reader mail split roughly 50-50 for and against clemency.

Sokatch argues that Williams’s story of personal repentance and redemption should speak to all Jews. In particular, he said, Jews should keep in mind Judaism’s notion that within every person, no matter his or her crimes, exists a nekudah tovah, a point of pure goodness. In this light, he said, even the most wicked of people cannot be solely defined by their most wicked acts.

“This story is not supposed to end this way… with us killing this guy,” he said. “It’s a question of who is this person now, and if he is who we think he is, how can we be complicit in his death?”

Greenfield countered that Williams, whatever he may have done since entering prison, remains what he was when he first was condemned to die 24 years ago: the violent gang godfather who executed four people by shotgun. He argued that the Torah teaches that the death penalty is a rare but permissible and sometimes needed option for delivering justice — and government has an obligation to act where God cannot to establish justice in this world.

Greenfield told the Forward he is disturbed by Sokatch’s and other Jews’ blanket opposition to capital punishment, which would have spared Nazis and modern-day terrorists from the ultimate penalty. He said it’s “absurd” that left-wing Jewish activists in California are lending their voices and devoting their limited resources to Williams’s cause.

So far, Jewish community-relations councils in California have stayed out of the fight.

“We don’t have a consensus position at this time, although we do have a number of members who are eager for us to revisit the issue,” said the executive director of the San Francisco JCRC, Rabbi Douglas Kahn about the death penalty. “It’s my hope that soon we will have the opportunity to do so, because it’s been many years since there has been a full discussion.”

Individual communal leaders are active in the debate. At a November 30 pro-clemency rally, Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco’s Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom was one of the speakers, along with a Catholic bishop, a Nation of Islam minister, a Baptist pastor and two gay elected officials.

From the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall, Lew said the Talmud teaches that above the world’s tumult, one can hear God praying continuously that compassion will prevail over anger. The world’s heart breaks for the victims of those on death row and for those victims’ families, but so, too, will it break when another life is snuffed out by the state, he said.

“Killing will never bring peace, killing will never bring closure, not once. It is a spiritual impossibility,” Lew said. “Life is a sacred gift. All life. Every life.”

Lew said he has been at San Quentin’s gates for each of the 12 executions since California’s capital punishment was reinstated in 1992. Barring a grant of clemency, he intends to be there for this one, too.

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