Does Tookie Deserve to Die?

updated 12/12/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/12/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

Stanley "Tookie" Williams is finally preparing for the end. He has languished on death row in California's San Quentin state prison for 24 years, but now he has run out of appeals, and unless Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger grants him clemency, Williams will be executed Dec. 13. Convicted of four brutal murders committed in a 13-day span in 1979, Williams, the cofounder of the infamous Crips, says he doesn't fear death. "I'm at peace," he told MSNBC's Rita Cosby. "I've become a man of peace."

And yet, Williams's impending execution has created a firestorm. Celebrities from Snoop Dogg—a former Crip—to M*A*S*H's Mike Farrell to Jamie Foxx have spoken out in favor of clemency. Hundreds of supporters including the Rev. Jesse Jackson have turned out for rallies at the prison, and a round-the-clock vigil is scheduled to begin Dec. 4. Schwarzenegger, who has denied clemency to death row inmates on two previous occasions, announced Nov. 25 he will hold a hearing with Williams's lawyers and L.A. County prosecutors on Dec. 8.

Williams, 51, has steadfastly maintained his innocence since being arrested for the murders. His lawyers have made numerous unsuccessful appeals, alleging tainted witnesses and withheld evidence and complaining that there were no blacks on the jury that convicted him. But investigators are confident they have their man: A number of witnesses placed him at the crime scenes, and a shotgun shell found at one murder scene came from a gun Williams owned.

Not only do many of Williams's supporters believe he's innocent, they also insist the ex-gangbanger has redeemed himself. In 1996 he released Tookie Speaks Out Against Gang Violence, a series of children's books denouncing the thug life, then donated all proceeds to antigang efforts. He helped broker a peace treaty between the Crips and Bloods in 2004 and has written two autobiographies that hammer home his message. (Meanwhile police argue that his refusal to disclose any information about the Crips—which Williams calls snitching—is a sign he hasn't changed at all.) "Saving Stanley's life saves lives," insists his coauthor Barbara Becnel. "We've heard from tens of thousands of gang members who've said they were going to kill someone and they read the book or saw [the 2004 TV movie Redemption, starring Jamie Foxx] and they backed away."

Williams's story is certainly a cautionary tale. Born in New Orleans, he moved to South Central L.A. in 1956, after his mother divorced. In 1971 Williams and a friend founded the Crips, ostensibly to protect their neighborhood from other gangs. But the gang quickly became a terror in its own right and by 1979 had spread across California. On Feb. 27 of that year, 7-Eleven clerk Albert Owens, 26, was killed by a shotgun blast during a robbery. A few days later, motel owners Yen-I Yang, 67, his wife, Tsai-Shai Yang, 63, and their daughter Ye-Chen Lin, 43, were gunned down at close range during a robbery. Multiple sources led the cops to Williams, who, they say, had bragged about the murders. During Williams's trial one witness said the gang leader laughed sadistically when recounting Owens's last breaths. Williams insists the witnesses were lying.

His repeated denials that he was involved anger the victims' families. "I believe in redemption, but I don't believe that Williams understands it," says Lora Owens, Albert Owens's stepmother. "To be redeemed means you accept responsibility." Williams, meanwhile, told MSNBC's Cosby, "I empathize with any family...who has lost a loved one. But honestly...I can't express remorse or make an apology for crimes I did not commit."

Barring clemency, Williams will remain on death row until the evening of Dec. 12, when he will be transferred to a cell adjacent to the execution chamber. Williams says he won't request a last meal or invite anyone to attend his execution. "I don't want anyone to be there," he told Cosby. "Who would I possibly want to see me die?"

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