Lost amid the clemency cries for Stanley "Tookie" Williams was much talk about why, exactly, a judge sentenced him to die. That the Crips streetgang co-founder, executed at San Quentin State Prison in California on Dec. 13, murdered four people crossed the wires, yes. But as Williams' date with death approached, most media zoomed in on the celebrity clemency clamor, while training soft focus on the nature of the death-row killer's crimes-and his sprawling urban legacy of assault, rape, and murder.
In the early-morning hours of Feb. 28, 1979, Williams, wielding a 12-gauge sawed-off shotgun, burst into a Los Angeles convenience store. While three accomplices robbed the till, Williams jammed his weapon into store clerk Albert Owens' back and forced him to walk to the stockroom.
"Lay down, [expletive]!" Williams said. Mr. Owens, 26, an Army veteran and divorced father of two, complied. Williams then fired two shots into his back. Accomplices in the robbery later testified that Williams bragged about the gurgling noise that his victim made while dying: "You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him."
Less than two weeks later, at a South L.A. motel owned by his family, Robert Yang was asleep when he heard loud banging. Then he heard gun blasts and screaming. When he reached the motel office he found his 63-year-old mother, Tsai-Shai Yang, his father Yen-I Yang, 76, and his sister Yee-Chen Lin, 43, all dying from shotgun wounds. Williams, before robbing the motel cash register of about $100, had shot Yang's father and sister twice each, and his mother once in the face, all at point-blank range. The killer later told friends that the next time he committed a robbery, he would murder his victims "just like I blew them Buddaheads away."
During 24 years in prison, Williams generated a blizzard of appeals that proclaimed his innocence and, ironically, given his racist 1979 statement, charged that racial bias had tainted his 1981 murder trial. He clung to those claims until the end. On the night of his execution, Williams spoke by telephone with Linda Owens, the former wife of Albert Owens, whom Williams was convicted of killing in 1979. In an e-mail to the Sacramento Bee, Ms. Owens said Williams again told her he was innocent.
His persistent denial seems to have figured heavily in Gov. Schwarzenegger's decision to deny clemency. "Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings, there can be no redemption," Mr. Schwarzenegger said in a Dec. 12 statement denying Williams clemency. "In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.'
Instead, Williams and his advocates relied on what they said were the death-row inmate's good works. After Williams appeared in a 1993 video to endorse a truce between Los Angeles street gangs-he had helped found one of them, the notorious Crips, in 1979-former journalist Barbara Becnel spent the next dozen years promoting Williams as an advocate of peace. She also helped him write nine children's books that warn kids of the dangers of gangs.
The actual impact of the books remains unclear, but publicity from them motivated a member of the Swiss parliament to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Others renominated Williams each year thereafter. As his execution date approached, clemency for Mr. Williams became a liberal cause célèbre for some Hollywood stars and Democratic politicians. California Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) praised Williams for his "redemptive efforts to steer kids away from violence."
In that effort, Williams' failure hit close to home. In 1994 his son, Tookie Jr., was convicted of murder. Meanwhile, between the Crips' 1979 inaugural year and 2003, more than 9,700 gang-related homicides occurred in Los Angeles County alone, according to California justice department records. Hundreds were drive-by shootings, a murder technique introduced and perfected by the Crips.
In the end, Williams escaped the kind of bloody street death glamorized by his legacy gang. Instead he died before 39 jailhouse witnesses, strapped to a gurney with a needle in his arm-and, perhaps, with Linda Owens' last words to him ringing in his ears: "Go with God."