Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Court Turns Down Crips Founder’s Challenge to Death Sentence
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Supreme Court yesterday declined to review the death sentence of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, a founder of the Crips street gang whose later work for peace won him Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
Williams, who has been praised for his children’s books and efforts to curtail youth gang violence, likely will be executed in December if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger does not grant clemency. The 51-year-old former gang member claims Los Angeles County prosecutors violated his rights when they dismissed all potential black jurors.
Williams, who claims he is innocent, is in line to be one of three California condemned inmates to be executed within months. He was condemned for killing four people in two separate 1979 robberies and claims jailhouse informants fabricated testimony that he confessed to the murders.
The justices, without comment or dissent, denied Williams’ petition for review of a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that denied his habeas corpus petition. The denial leaves Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—who has the power of clemency—as Williams’ last avenue of recourse.
En Banc Denied
In February, the Ninth Circuit, over a dissent by nine of its 24 active judges, denied en banc review of a 2002 panel ruling denying Williams’ federal habeas corpus petition.
The panel affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, rejecting Williams’ bid for a new trial for the murders, which took place in the course of two separate 1979 robberies.
The first victim was Albert Owens, a teenage clerk at a Whittier convenience store. An immunized government witness testified that he, Williams, and two other men stole $120 from the store’s register and that Williams shot the clerk execution-style.
Williams was the only one in the group with a gun, the witness testified. He claimed that Williams mocked the gurgling sounds Owen made as he lay dying. “You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him,” he quoted Williams as saying.
The victims of the second robbery were Thsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin, gunned down during a the robbery of their Vermont Avenue motel two weeks after the Whittier robbery. Four witnesses, including a cellmate, testified that Williams admitted to them that he committed the killings.
Williams, who continues to deny the murders while generally acknowledging his role in fomenting gang violence, presented an alibi defense.
Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson, writing for the Ninth Circuit dissenters, argued that Williams should have been granted relief because his trial attorney, Joseph Ingber, did not object to the removal of three potential African American jurors via peremptory challenges.
“Any way you slice it, counsel’s failure to object constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, and we should not hesitate to say so,” Rawlinson wrote. “... If our judicial system is to inspire a sense of confidence among the populace, we must not, we cannot permit trials to proceed in the face of blatant, race-based jury selection practices.”
Rawlinson was joined by Judges Harry Pregerson, Stephen Reinhardt, Sidney Thomas, Kim M. Wardlaw, William Fletcher, Raymond C. Fisher, Richard A. Paez, and Marsha Berzon.
The three-judge panel had held that there was no prima facie evidence the challenges were race-based.
Williams and a high school buddy, Raymond Washington, created the Crips in 1971. Hundreds of spinoffs and copycat gangs have since emerged across the nation.
Washington was killed during a gang confrontation in 1979. Williams, “Big Took” to his fellow gang members, continued his violent ways and transformed the Crips into a nationwide enterprise.
While appealing his death sentence, he has spent time writing children’s books and coordinating an international peace effort for youths—all from his 9-foot-by-4-foot cell at San Quentin State Prison.
In the panel opinion, Senior Judge Procter Hug Jr. took note of Williams’ Nobel nomination, submitted by a group of Swiss parliamentarians. But while his efforts were “laudable,” the judge said, they may only be considered in connection with the clemency process.
The three-juge panel also rejected Williams’ claim that one of the witnesses, Samuel Coleman, was coerced into testifying that Williams confessed to the motel murders.
Coleman claimed in a declaration that after he and Williams were picked up in Coleman’s car after the murders, he was beaten by police and agreed to testify only because he feared further beatings and also thought he would otherwise be charged with involvement in the crimes.
But Hug noted that Coleman’s trial testimony occurred two years after the interrogation, saying any hint of coercion “had certainly dissipated,” especially since Coleman was represented by counsel at the time he testified and had obtained a grant of immunity.
Andrea Asaro, an attorney for Williams, said her client has a strong case for clemency “because of what Stan has accomplished.”
Michael Rushford, president of the Sacramento-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, disagreed.
“Perhaps now he will finally get the punishment that a jury unanimously agreed he deserved,” Rushford said.
No condemned murderer has obtained clemency in California since 1967, when then-Gov. Ronald Reagan commuted the sentence of a brain-damaged killer. Schwarzenegger has rejected clemency for the first two condemned men asking to commute their sentences to life without parole.
In Schwarzenegger’s latest rejection in January, he said an inmate’s model behavior in prison was not enough to sway him to grant mercy. That inmate, Donald Beardslee, was executed days later.
Last year, “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story” aired on television, prompting thousands of e-mail messages to Williams from young gang members who said his life story helped them turn their lives around.
“Today is a shameful day in the history of American jurisprudence,” said Barbara Becnel, a Williams confidant who edited Williams’ nine children’s books. “Today the U.S. Supreme Court has said in its ruling essentially that it is OK for a white prosecutor to kick all of the African Americans off of a jury.”
The high court yesterday also set aside legal challenges from California condemned inmate Michael Morales, now 45, who raped and killed a 17-year-old Lodi girl whose body as found beaten and stabbed in a nearby vineyard 24 years ago. Authorities are seeking a February execution for Morales.
The victim in that case, Terry Winchell was the girlfriend of a fellow student who was also involved in a homosexual relationship with Morales’ cousin, Ricky Ortega.
Prosecutors said that Ortega enlisted Morales’ help in killing Winchell out of jealousy. Winchell was raped, beaten, stabbed multiple times, and had her jaw broken, according to testimony.
Among other things, Morales challenged a jury’s finding that the murder was committed while torturing the victim — which was the basis for the death sentence. While the torture instruction given was later held unconstitutional because it did not explain that torture requires “extreme pain,” prosecutors successfully argued that it made no difference in Morales’ case because a lying-in-wait special circumstance was also found true and the torture finding would have been made under any reasonable instruction.
Last week, the justices paved the way for the execution of Clarence Allen, a leader of a Fresno crime ring who ordered three killings from Folsom State Prison where he already was serving time for murder.
Prosecutors are seeking a January execution for Allen.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company