Knight Ridder Newspapers

The execution of Stanley Tookie Williams accomplished one thing. It created Williams the martyr.

Interesting how people are often given more credit in death, than what they deserved in life.

In some circles ex-gang leader Williams is already viewed as the victim. He is spoken of as being killed by “the system”; in his case by lethal injection.

Note the guilt is on the nebulous “system,” not on Williams’ heinous past. This version camouflages the full truth.

Williams was a cold-blooded killer, convicted of four deaths but also notorious for nurturing the Crips into a gang movement that threaten minority communities nationwide.

Williams should not have been executed. Not because he had reached some sort of earthly redemption as he claimed, and therefore deserved life in prison. But because the evil he propagated through the Crips could only begin to be rectified by a lifetime of misery behind bars.

By giving him death instead, the state of California inadvertently cleared the way for Williams’ hero status. It also bought into the eye-for-an-eye sort of revenge that once characterized Williams’ life.

The retooling of Williams’ life story began before his body was cold. Supporters outside San Quentin prison began to sing “We Shall Overcome” as they protested his death. Normally the song implies overcoming racism and prejudice. It was an anthem during the civil rights movement. So it was an odd choice to be sung for a man who arguably caused as much grief to modern-day minority communities as the Klan once did through lynching.

But the image of Williams as a savior to the very communities he helped ravage is already beginning to cement. During the last days of his life, many a well-known star stood up in Williams’ defense.

There was actor Jamie Foxx, who played Williams in a movie. And rap star Snoop Dogg, who praised Williams’ ability to reach urban youth. And the Rev. Jesse Jackson was among the many voices pleading for clemency.

With the real Williams not around to shake his own pedestal, the image that will stick is a man surrounded by such star power.

More helpful images would be Williams as a hulking man of powerful muscles, but still literally shackled due to the horrible choices he in life. Gone is the man who could tell young people, “Yes, a movie was made about my life, but I will never walk free again.” Gone is the chance for Williams to provide more evidence of the redemption he claimed.

Even Williams acknowledged his change of heart only happened because of incarceration.

In an interview with the New York Times, Williams said, “Had I still been in society I never would have been able to make the kind of impact I can now.”

Locked up, Williams actually did some good. His speeches, by telephone, and books urged young people to avoid the violent life he had chosen.

In denying clemency, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger questioned the impact of Williams’ work, citing a lack of decrease in gang violence. But there is no way to tally the children who have been steered clear of gangs by Williams. And there will be no way to know the numbers who could have been persuaded in the future.

Dead, Williams also cannot provide the full truth to his soon-to-be over-glorified image. Williams’ legacy will be guided by people eager to eulogize him into a hero status he never earned in life.

The redemption Williams claimed to possess is not measurable by a handful of speeches, a few children’s books. Atonement for the violence he caused could only be measured by a lifetime of good works.

Williams simply had done far too much evil in his life. He needed to live a long, long time to make a dent toward amends.

Gov. Schwarzenegger posed a critical question in his statement denying clemency: “Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise?”

The world will never know.

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