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Crime and Punishment
2006-01-01

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Reflections by Joey Mogul

Despite an international movement comprised of activists, celebrities and politicians seeking clemency from California's Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stanley Tookie Williams, a 51-year-old African-American heterosexual man, was executed on Dec. 13, 2005. Hundreds insisted Mr. Williams was innocent and did not deserve to die. Others advocated that his life should be spared because of his personal redemption.

I am against capital punishment in all cases. I personally opposed Mr. Williams' execution because I had lingering doubts as to his guilt and I believed his personal transformation warranted mercy. I also opposed his execution because racism played a role in his ultimate execution. And, I hope members of LGBT and other oppressed communities opposed Mr. Williams' execution and those of all others because we have no assurance that anyone's death sentence is free of prejudice. We are ( should be ) intimately aware of the effects bias wreaks on the judicial system and court decisions affecting our rights and lives.

Mr. Williams was convicted and sentenced to die for the shooting deaths of Alvin Owens, a 7-11 store clerk, and Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yin and Yee-Chin Lin, a family who owned the Brookhaven Motel. The deaths occurred during the course of two separate robberies 11 days apart. The case was largely based on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of witnesses whose credibility was suspect because they had strong motivations to lie.

There were no eyewitnesses to the family members' murders, and the one witness to Mr. Owens' shooting was an alleged accomplice who received immunity from prosecution for his participation in the robbery in exchange for his testimony against Mr. Williams. Other witnesses claimed Mr. Williams admitted to the murders. Many of these witnesses also testified in exchange for plea deals to resolve their own criminal woes. There were also three jailhouse witnesses who claimed the state's witnesses were fabricating their testimony in an attempt to frame Mr. Williams.

Regardless of his innocence or guilt, others strongly advocated that Mr. Williams' life should be spared because he was a changed man who worked for peace. At age 17, Mr. Williams co-founded the Crips, a street gang in Los Angeles. After years of incarceration and isolation, he transformed himself, resulting in the renunciation of his gang membership. He subsequently authored nine books for children, dissuading them from gangs and gang violence. He also put his money where his mouth was by donating the proceeds from his book sales to anti-violence organizing. He was known for negotiating truces between gangs. In light of his accomplishments, he was nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize and received the President's Call to Service Award in 2005.

What angered and disturbed me the most was that Mr. Williams was killed, despite significant evidence that he did not receive a fair trial and his case was not free of bias. Mr. Williams was tried by a prosecutor with a reputation for improperly removing African Americans from juries. This practice was so well-known that it was acknowledged by the Supreme Court of California. Mr. Williams' case was no exception. The prosecutor struck all three potential African Americans in the jury pool, guaranteeing Mr. Williams would be tried before an all-white jury. This same prosecutor also made a racist analogy in his closing argument when beseeching the jury to kill Mr. Williams. The prosecutor pandered to racist stereotypes that Black men are violent animals when he compared Mr. Williams to a Bengal tiger. These are two examples transparent from the written record as to racist dynamics at play at Mr. Williams' trial. It is fair to assume there may have been many other racist dynamics in operation where Mr. Williams' was tried by an all-white jury for an inter-racial violent crime.

Unfortunately, Mr. Williams' case is not an isolated example of unfair treatment African Americans have experienced in the criminal justice system. The racist legacy of capital punishment, from the time of slavery to lynchings of the twentieth century, still lingers today. This is corroborated by the disproportionate numbers of African Americans who have been sentenced to death and executed in modern times. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, Black defendants are more likely to be sentenced and executed in capital cases than white defendants, most often in cases where the victim is white:

— 58% of those executed have been Black;

— 80% of the cases involved white victims although nationally only 50% of all murder victims are white;

— today, death row is disproportionately comprised of people of color; 46% are Black and 10% are Latino.

There should be no doubt that racism and poverty affects who is subjected to capital punishment.

Yet another dynamic for members of LGBT and criminal justice communities to understand is that homophobia, sexism and gender-variant bias has also played a sinister role in capital cases. Since 1976, there has been a series of cases where prosecutors have improperly injected evidence of a defendant's sexual orientation into proceedings or argued a defendant's queer identity warranted his or her execution. A few cases involving gay and lesbian criminal defendants illustrate this phenomena:

— an Oklahoma prosecutor advised a jury to consider Jay Wesley Neill was gay when deciding whether he should live or die: 'You're deciding the life or death of a person that's a vowed [ sic ] homosexual. . . .';

— a Texas prosecutor argued the jury must deliver a death sentence to Calvin Burdine because 'sending a homosexual to the penitentiary certainly isn't a very bad punishment for a homosexual'; or

— a prosecutor in Boone County, Ill., argued Bernina Mata, a Latina lesbian, killed a white heterosexual man, because she is 'a hard core lesbian' and 'A normal heterosexual woman would not be so offended by such conduct [ a sexual pass ] as to murder.'

The existence of discrimination alone should prompt people to oppose all executions. No one can have any confidence that the enforcement of any execution is free from prejudice.

We can have no faith any killing is fair, let alone just or right.

Joey Mogul is a partner at the People's Law Office and a member of Queer to the Left and the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

ART/PHOTO

**** Aldo Castillo Gallery: Out of the Shadow: Art of Bronze, Rose Segura Sanz ( Spain ) thru Jan 28. Expressionism in Our Time: Recent Works by Lorna Marsh & Diane Thodos thru Jan 28. The Abstract Mind/Mural-Art Exploring Individuals Living with Mental Illness will be shown April 10-20, the Chicago Festival of Disability Arts and Culture. Aldo Castillo is an openly gay Nicaraguan is gallery director, curator, art dealer, artist and human rights activist. In his struggle for recognition in the United States, he discovered a general lack of knowledge, appreciation and understanding of the integrity and importance of Latin American art and culture and in 1993 founded the gallery, which has become an important part of the Chicago and International art scene. 233 W Huron St ( 312 ) 337-2536 www.artaldo.com .

****Gerber Hart Library: Red Ribbons: To Remind Us All, an exhibition of red ribbon objects from the collection of Norman L. Sandfield. Thru Dec. 1127 W Granville Ave ( 773 ) 381-8030 www.gerberhart.org .


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