Did Killing Williams Make a Difference?


Randall G. Shelden


After years of legal maneuvering Tookie Williams was finally executed.  It happened at 12:35 AM, Pacific Time, on December 13, 2005.  I suppose the time is important to note, and it was so noted by various news reports. We are so precise, aren’t we?


This should settle things and make up for past wrongs.  Four victims and one executed killer.  That’s supposed to “even the score,” so to speak.


The victims’ families will now have “closure” we are told. We are always told, by supporters of the death penalty, that the victims must have some voice.  In the case of the “people v. Tookie Williams” the people won, many are saying.  Victims can now rejoice.


Did Williams atone for his alleged crimes?  Was everything he did while in prison (the children’s books, etc.) just a big “con job” in order to save his life?  Did he really kill these four people?  Did he really create the infamous “Crips” gang?  Did the courts and the juries fail?  Was an innocent man executed?


In the final analysis, none of this really matters, does it?  In the grand scheme of things, all of these arguments (and many others, by both supporters and those against capital punishment) mean nothing.  The “score” will never be even, as long as we as a country practice what has been abandoned by virtually the rest of the world.  We stand with Third World dictatorships in this medieval practice. 


Have gangs and murder disappeared because one member was executed?  Is it not true that someone else has already taken Tookie’s place in the world of street gangs?  Gang-related killings are again on the rise in Los Angeles and elsewhere.  Probably before this day is over, another killing will take place.  Another young black man will have his life cut short.  The Los Angeles Times reported that last night several dozen people had gathered in a local park to oppose the execution. It was noted that “the speakers who addressed them focused more on healing crime in black communities than on Williams’ plight.”  They know about more about gang killings and other crime in their communities much more than supporters of the death penalty, many of whom are white and live in relatively crime-free communities far removed from the “mean streets” of urban America.


In a previous commentary, I noted that in order to arrive at a rational and sensible response to crime we need to go beyond knee-jerk reactions and simple-minded solutions (e.g., “Three Strikes and You’re Out”), including the death penalty.  We owe it to all the victims to come up with something better. And speaking of victims, what ever happened to the “victim’s rights movement”?  What ever happened to all the concern, starting in the late 1970s, about victims and their plight?  Marc Klaas (father of Polly Klaas, who was kidnapped from her own bedroom and brutally murdered a few years ago, and whose case helped in part justify the “Three Strikes” legislation in California), has commented at length about our draconian response to youth crime and how it does little for crime victims and their families.  If anyone should know, Mr. Klaus should!  He noted that “The trouble with America’s children is America’s adults...America’s current focus on stronger sentencing is a simple solution to a much more complex problem.  We are kidding ourselves if we think we can declare victory by treating youthful offenders like adults...if other families are to be sparred the pain that mine has endured, policymakers need to look beyond the death penalty or prison sentences.”


Aside from a few token measures to provide various forms of assistance for victims (e.g., compensation for material losses, mental health counseling), nothing much has been done since the much heralded “victims rights movement” began.  As one critic put it, millions of crime victims have been manipulated to serve narrow political agendas, that most of the laws passed during this time have done little to really help these victims and that many forms of serious victimization - especially corporate and white collar crime - have been ignored. 


Another review of victim’s rights programs came to the conclusion that, other than shelters for battered women, the various programs that have been offered have done little or nothing to reduce victimization - and even shelters have their limits on reducing domestic violence.  These failures include such popular responses as: victim assistance programs, police-victim re-contact programs (where the police make contact with victims after the crime has occurred, offer sympathy, ask whether they need any assistance, etc.), direct victim compensation programs, expanding the victim’s voice in the courtroom (e.g., victim impact statement), and mandatory arrest in domestic violence programs.  Evaluations of these and other programs have found them to be unsuccessful in reducing overall crime, reducing the suffering of the victims and compensating them for their loses and reducing the overall fear of crime.  After three decades of such efforts, says one critic, they are “victims still.” (See Robert Ellias, Victims Still and Andrew Karmen, Crime Victims). 


Part of the problem stems from the utter contempt many criminal justice officials and politicians have for many crime victims, with some using derogatory terms for both victims and offenders, often blaming the victims for what happened (especially women who get raped and are victims of domestic violence).  And over and over again politicians, including criminal justice officials, have capitalized on simple slogans calling for victim’s rights, while privately not giving a damn about them and supporting legislation that offers little or no help for victims, but plenty of help for themselves.


To reduce crime and the suffering that goes with it, we need to work on eliminating some of the main causes.  We need to address crime at its source and do all we can to address the major causes of the kinds of crimes that harm people every day.  Providing needed social services to families and children, plus health care, job training, educational opportunities, recreational programs for kids and others do far more to help victims, as they focus on preventing crime. Further, alternative sentencing is badly needed, as we all too often merely warehouse offenders in overcrowded prisons.  When they return to society (as almost all eventually do), they are too often worse than when they came in.  Most of those involved in recent gang-related killings are ex-offenders who were warehoused for the past 10-15 years.


To ignore these causes to ignore the victims.  And we have been ignoring victims, as all over the country states have been cutting back on much needed social services - including both public school and university funding - in order to build more jails and prisons (and hundreds have been built just in the past decade). Crime victims deserve more than mere lip service from politicians and criminal justice officials, who too often use them as a method of getting votes, only to ignore them once in office.


 © 2005, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.