Tookie Williams denied clemency

by Chris Bertram on December 12, 2005

I see from the BBC that Tookie Williams has been denied clemency . I have no opinion about whether he was guilty or not, nor do I know whether the various good works he has engaged in in prison were sincerely motivated. I am generally opposed to the death penalty, for a variety of familiar reasons. But I’m moved to post now, not to articulate those general reasons, but out of a sense of incredulity. The crimes for which Williams was convicted took place in 1979, when he was in his mid-20s. Even if I thought it was right to execute people for such crimes, I think I’d baulk at the idea of killing someone in his 50s for an act committed more than a quarter of a century ago. To do that is almost like executing another person.

{ 40 comments }

1

joe o 12.12.05 at 6:28 pm

A lot of the delay is due to appeals that are probably a good idea to let happen. I thought this was a good article. The people on Death Row tend to be bad people who should be in prison for life rather than killed by the state.

2

Brian 12.12.05 at 7:17 pm

I’m very sympathetic to this line of argument Chris, but shouldn’t you worry how far it could go. After all, let’s imagine Tookie Williams was granted clemency, and his sentence reduced to life in prison. We’d still be punishing his for a crime committed by someone almost like another person. So should we release him?

Shorter version: Why is this a problem specifically for *capital* punishment?

3

Jacob T. Levy 12.12.05 at 7:25 pm

Indeed, I think Ernest van den Haag has used Brian’s point as an argument in favor of capital punishment, since life imprisonment guarantees that one will spend decades punishing this “other person,” whereas an efficient system of capital punishment (I know, I know…) would make it possible to avoid ever punishing that other person.

4

rb 12.12.05 at 7:39 pm

But how to establish that this man is another person and not the same person in a very different environment?

5

Niraj 12.12.05 at 8:03 pm

There is no staute of limitation for the crime of murder. Hence the argument that “murder was commited by almost another person” is irrelevant, regardless of exact punishment (execution or life in prison)

6

Gary Farber 12.12.05 at 8:14 pm

“Even if I thought it was right to execute people for such crimes, I think I’d baulk at the idea of killing someone in his 50s for an act committed more than a quarter of a century ago. To do that is almost like executing another person.”

I think that’s a very fair argument.

It’s unfortunate that it’s the same argument as saying that, therefore, we should cut down on the legal protections that have so delayed his execution.

It’s easy to resolve this if one is simply able to say that all capital punishment is wrong. Unfortunately, if one is not, then one is left to debate between the time taken to acheive greater justice, and the time necessary to acheive that greater justice resulting in lesser justice.

My own position tends to be to oppose capital justice, but only on the usual grounds of erraticness of execution, doubt, social injustice, and so on. I’d tend to ban in on the grounds that we are insufficiently competent, as humans, to enforce it sufficiently demonstrably justly and provably. (I’d only ban it on “humans should leave off all those judgments altogehter” grounds one day every other week, myself.)

But the whole “quit granting so many rights in an attempt to prove the justness of the sentence because the length of time it takes becomes unjust” argument strikes me as more or less simply another restatement of the “I’m opposed to capital punishment” argument. It’s nice, but putting another coat on it really doesn’t change the argument. At one point the argument for increasing justice via length of time simply isn’t compatible with the increase-time-makes-for-injustice argument. And seems quite silly, to boot. (That is, I’ve missed seeing Chris’s name on petitions to speed up executions; I may be wrong, but I’m inclined to be surprised if I would find his name there; so acting as if he’d been so seeking such quickings seems, well, a bit of an omission to me; was there a particular legal step you are calling for having been sped up, Chris?)

7

Kenny Easwaran 12.12.05 at 8:47 pm

Well, “I’m opposed to capital punishment” isn’t an argument – it’s a conclusion that many different arguments can lead one to. The more common argument is that it’s never just to kill anyone (so the phrase “capital justice” used by Gary Farber might be seen by some as an oxymoron).

However, if one believes that it might sometimes be just to kill someone, one may still argue that to be sure such a killing is just, there must be a certain amount of time allowed for appeals, new evidence, and the like. However, adding this much time almost always means punishing someone whose connection to the original criminal is at least somewhat attenuated, and who may now very well be a productive and useful (or at least, not harmful) member of society (or at least, of prison society). Thus, killing someone after such a long time may always be unjust, even if killing them after a short time might not be, and a legal system has to allow a long time to prevent other sorts of injustices (like lack of exculpatory evidence, poor legal representation, etc.). Thus, even though killing someone for a crime might theoretically be just, this argument suggests that we shouldn’t ever do it, because it can’t justly be put into practice.

So it’s actually a very different argument against capital punishment from the standard one.

There is no staute of limitation for the crime of murder. Hence the argument that “murder was commited by almost another person” is irrelevant, regardless of exact punishment (execution or life in prison)

Niraj’s point confuses the law with morality – the discussion here is about whether the legal practice of execution is morally justified. Niraj cites a legal fact as evidence against this. I’m sure that this argument would be generalized by its supporters to suggest that there should be a statute of limitations even for the crime of murder.

8

Tom T. 12.12.05 at 9:06 pm

At least a few death-row inmates have raised the claim that they had been on death row so long that to execute them would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. As far as I know, those lower federal courts that have confronted the claim have rejected it. I don’t think the Supreme Court has ever ruled on the issue.

9

Cpt. Iglo 12.12.05 at 10:05 pm

Are you suggesting they should have killed him in 1979 then?

10

Anderson 12.12.05 at 10:14 pm

Right, I’d thought of the Derek Parfit argument too, but as Brian says, why should we lock up “Tookie Prime” any more than we should execute him? Too late to get Arnie a copy of Reasons and Persons.

Here in Miss. we’re about to execute a guy who’s 77 and who shot a woman in the head (fatally) in a contract killing. I’m ambivalent on the death penalty, but I’m not losing any sleep over this guy or Tookie.

(The guy was dumb enough to use a .22, so although he shot the woman’s hubby too, he was able to escape & testify at the trial. Wrong tool for the job, that.)

In our Miss. case, the guy who hired the killer got only life in prison, which seems incongruous.

11

ed_finnerty 12.12.05 at 10:38 pm

chris

Your arguement is illogical

If execution is a reasonable punitive response to murder (clearly it isn’t reformative) the timing shouldn’t matter. He always committed the murder.

12

lemuel pitkin 12.12.05 at 10:47 pm

Chris is right .. but the commenters who say that capital punishmenet is no different from life imprisonment in this respect are right too.

I recall the Nicaraguan Constitution under the Sandinistas banned, along with the death penalty, prison sentences over a certain term (30 years?) on the grounds that they were the equivalent of depriving someone of their life.

13

Sam 12.12.05 at 11:16 pm

ed_finnerty said:

“He always committed the murder.”

Well, I think Chris’ point was that he isn’t the same person (or, more precisely, he almost is a different person). You can disagree with Chris’ metaphysics, but i don’t think his position was illogical.

14

Matt 12.12.05 at 11:35 pm

Lemuel,
I’m not certain but I believe that most western European countries have also done away with (or nearly done away with) life prison sentences as well, and that the US is also an aberation in having real life prison sentences. I’ve always wondered, though, if we think the person we might let out is “a different person”, why do we let him or her use, say, the old one’s social security number? I only mean that last bit partly as a joke- it seems pretty clear that when we say “a differnt person” we mean it at least partly figuratively.

15

Brian 12.13.05 at 12:09 am

I think anyone who wants to take Chris’s argument seriously (and that includes me) should have a good response to Matt’s question. After all, if someone is barely the same person as they were 30 years ago, why do they have any special rights over the assets acquired by that person 30 years ago? If they can’t be punished for wrong acts way back when because they aren’t the same person, they can’t be rewarded for good acts. So one might think that life ownership of property should be just as dubious as life imprisonment.

Two answers spring to mind, neither of them particularly compelling. The first is that given a strong enough taxation system, especially taxation of wealth, there might be next to no perpetual property. The second is that we might think that the person has ‘bequeathed’ their property to their later self, and it is possible to bequeath goods but not criminal responsibility. I’m not sure either of these will really do though, and I’m not sure we really have a good answer to Matt’s question.

16

Michael 12.13.05 at 12:37 am

Well, as others have noted, part of the delay in the execution has to do with certain constitutional and legal measures (appeals, etc.), but, even then, I think the issue Chris raises could still be raised. But then I’d ask this: what if Williams had not spent many years in prison; what if he hadn’t been arrested until now? Would you argue that prosecutors shouldn’t seek the death penalty, that capital punishment shouldn’t be applied, on the basis that he’s in his 50s and possibly a different person now? One might argue that, well, he’s a different person because he spent all that time in prison, but that doesn’t get around the central question of time and age. If he had been on the run all this and finally got caught, should different laws and sentences apply?

And, by the way, if the answer is in the affirmative, does the moral value of his victims change as a result?

17

Terry 12.13.05 at 1:15 am

I’d like to ask a question of the anti-capital punishment commenters to this post. Is it possible for a human being to commit a crime of such magnitude that it would be just for the state to put him or her to death?
By phrasing the question this way I hope to eliminate any complicating factors such as possible innocence in spite of conviction as well as mitigating factors such as a bad social environment or insanity.

18

Dan Simon 12.13.05 at 1:31 am

I think I’d baulk at the idea of killing someone in his 50s for an act committed more than a quarter of a century ago. To do that is almost like executing another person.

It hardly takes a quarter-century to become “almost like….another person”. A couple of traumatic years–say, one’s first years in prison–can be similarly transformative. Indeed, in some cases, the act of murder itself may be enough to render the murderer “almost like….another person”. And let’s not forget all those criminals who have convinced numerous acquaintances that they have always been “almost like….another person”, i.e., completely different “at heart” from the one who committed their crimes.

Fortunately, any decent system of earthly justice or morality judges people not for what sort of person they are “almost like”, but rather, for what they have done. Our ever-evolving souls may be judged by God based on divinely comprehended cosmic properties that are hopelessly beyond our ken. We mortals must (if we are properly humble and honest with ourselves) be content to judge our fellow material beings only for what is accessible to us: the concrete deeds of their bodies.

19

Z 12.13.05 at 2:32 am

#17 Is it possible for a human being to commit a crime of such magnitude that it would be just for the state to put him or her to death?

I speak as a european and thus outside a very great deal of preconceptions of US legal debate, but I will try to answer your challenge. I would say no: there is in my opinion no crime so heinous that it would be just for the state to execute its perpetrators. The important word being of course just. Because of its final and absolute nature, I think capital punishment is fundamentally incompatible with the conception of justice I favor. Of course, human beings can (and regularly do) commit acts so egregious that they may deserve in my mind to die. However, for the time being, I am capable of distinguishing between my own feelings and what justice is. Should I or one of my beloved ones be the victim, I hope I remain strong enough to maintain this crucial difference.

As a side note, in my mind the first and foremost function of prison is to protect the rest of the society from individuals that have proven themselves dangerous. Thus, though I would (mildly) oppose a complete ban on life-terms because I can foresee the case of an individual dangerous until his very last day, I strongly oppose terms longer than say 30 or 45 years, especially when it can be established (within a reasonnable margin of error of course) that the possible threat that the individual harms again the society can be more efficiently dealt with using less coercive measures.

20

Chris Bertram 12.13.05 at 2:41 am

The point Brian made is clearly right and I should concede it. No-one should be in prison — as punishment — for that long either. There may, though, be justification for detaining some people indefinitely if they continue to pose a threat to others. So, for example, for some serial killers, the justification for detaining them beyond 25 years or so would not be punitive, but rather that we need protecting from them.

21

Dan Simon 12.13.05 at 3:25 am

No-one should be in prison—as punishment—for that long either.

Okay, Chris–how long is “that long”? Why, in particular, should it take anything like 25 years for a murderer to be “barely the same person”, in Brian’s phrasing?

Consider, for instance, the typical “crime of passion” killer. In most cases, the murder is the perpetrator’s first–that is, it’s already the act of someone quite different from the murderer’s “normal” self. Moreover, an event so shocking also almost always transforms its perpetrator quite radically in an instant–he or she will, as they say, never be the same again. Finally, the traumatic aftermath–the arrest, trial and imprisonment–tends to effect yet another deep, massive change. Within a short time, the wary, beaten-down convict is bound to be barely recognizable as his or her former self–let alone as the uncontrolled slave of passion who committed the murder.

Why, then, would you not release immediately–let alone after, say, a year of prison time–someone so obviously completely different from the one who committed the crime?

22

Doug 12.13.05 at 3:42 am

No-one should be in prison—as punishment—for that long either.

IIRC, a “life” sentence in the UK is actaully something like 15 years. So another person’s life — in the case of T. McVeigh, another 168 persons’ lives, or in the case of that British doctor, something like 250 persons’ lives — is worth 15 years of their killers’ lives. That’s it. Nothing more.

Is this just?

23

Another Damned Medievalist 12.13.05 at 3:42 am

OTOH, Chris, I have no problem with Manson staying locked up (wait — is he still alive? I think so …) Forever. But I don’t think there’s ever been a reasonable argument that he’s been rehabilitated.

24

abb1 12.13.05 at 3:47 am

It seems kinda obvious to me that opposition to death penalty can not be absolute; it’s merely a reflection of the level of enlightenment which is highly correlated with current conditions.

I can easily imagine a situation where conditions in the most progressive society deteriorated so much (for whatever reason: natural disasters, war, etc.) that it’d make sense to start summary executions. If one is surrounded by barbarism, one may have no other choice but to become a barbarian.

So, there you go: better conditions (less brutality in general, no gangs, no guns, no poverty, etc.) -> more enlightenment -> no need for the death penalty. That’s the only way, IMO.

25

dsquared 12.13.05 at 5:24 am

Consider, for instance, the typical “crime of passion” killer. In most cases, the murder is the perpetrator’s first—that is, it’s already the act of someone quite different from the murderer’s “normal” self. Moreover, an event so shocking also almost always transforms its perpetrator quite radically in an instant—he or she will, as they say, never be the same again. Finally, the traumatic aftermath—the arrest, trial and imprisonment—tends to effect yet another deep, massive change. Within a short time, the wary, beaten-down convict is bound to be barely recognizable as his or her former self—let alone as the uncontrolled slave of passion who committed the murder.

Why, then, would you not release immediately—let alone after, say, a year of prison time—someone so obviously completely different from the one who committed the crime?

This actually happens a lot more often than you’d think.

26

ed_finnerty 12.13.05 at 8:57 am

Sam

I was suggesting that it was an illogical arguement on the following basis.

He indicated that there was a point in time (temporally close to the time of the act) when the death penalty was appropriate. Then he asserts that there is a later point in time when it is not appropriate. The reason stated for this is that the person is no longer the same person due to the time lag. However, based on this reasoning at any point in time following the act we know that there will be a future point in time when the death penalty will not be appropriate. Therefore, it is never appropriate.

27

Chris Bertram 12.13.05 at 9:08 am

He indicated that there was a point in time (temporally close to the time of the act) when the death penalty was appropriate.

Um, no I didn’t indicate any such thing.

And as for the rest of your argument, I think a little reflection will tell you that knowledge now that X will be become inappropriate at some future time does not generally entail that X is inappropriate now. For example, my knowledge now that it will be inappropriate to offer my condolences to a bereaved person at some future time does not entail that it is inappropriate to offer them now.

28

Anderson 12.13.05 at 9:43 am

Why, in particular, should it take anything like 25 years for a murderer to be “barely the same person”, in Brian’s phrasing?

After 25 years in an American prison, one is likely to be a different person all right—a much WORSE person.

29

Grand Moff Texan 12.13.05 at 10:28 am

I will agree with you, even though I support the death penalty and think it should be vastly expanded and expedited (but only after a complete reform of the legal system, which is a sick joke).

Waiting this long is cruel, and by that I mean to everyone involved.
.

30

BigMacAttack 12.13.05 at 10:37 am

Whatever type of person the new Tookie Williams is, he still remains an unrepentant killer.

By the way, I cannot wait for Chris and company’s impassioned defense of Pinochet.

How about it Chris?

31

Grand Moff Texan 12.13.05 at 10:48 am

By the way, I cannot wait for Chris and company’s impassioned defense of Pinochet.

Good point. If I have to wait 30 or 40 years for George W. Bush to be executed, it will be well worth the wait.
.

32

ed_finnerty 12.13.05 at 10:50 am

sorry chris – I read the post last night and mis-remembered it.

Your arguement is more that even if you thought it was right at one time, the passing of time would change this. I don’t think this effects the nature of my comments.

33

Gary Farber 12.13.05 at 10:50 am

“(so the phrase “capital justice” used by Gary Farber might be seen by some as an oxymoron).”

For the record, that was basically a slip of the brain/fingers, rather than a considered choice or words. Although it’s more or less the concept at the heart of the debate. But I actually meant to type “capital punishment,” as a point in fact.

34

Gary Farber 12.13.05 at 10:55 am

“By the way, I cannot wait for Chris and company’s impassioned defense of Pinochet.”

Hello, complete nonsequitur.

35

rb 12.13.05 at 11:55 am

“I’d like to ask a question of the anti-capital punishment commenters to this post. Is it possible for a human being to commit a crime of such magnitude that it would be just for the state to put him or her to death?”

Whether pro- or anti-, it all depends on your definition of “just”. It makes sense, both from a pre-emptive and emotionally satisfactory perspective. Then again, from a pre-emptive perspective, killing *anyone* makes sense, while from an emotional perspective anything *can* be considered prudent.
Either motivation is to be considered a suspect cornerstone for carrying the weight of the abstract that is Justice. Justice requires knowledge of Truth (of every relevant fact), which is beyond our grasp even when we try our best to investigate the multi-dimensional and recursive maze that is Everything. We’re in slightly over our heads there, so to speak.

Instead, we make do with the ethical restrictions reality tends to put on our brave little shoulders. And so many live, and some die. From a communal perspective, it sorta works, at the cost of many individual tragedies.

In other words: Justice does not exist, no matter how or how hard we try to implement it. Our limitations beg for roadkill.

36

Dan Simon 12.13.05 at 1:02 pm

This actually happens a lot more often than you’d think.

Perhaps. So what? Are you seriously suggesting that a one-year jail term is the appropriate sentence for the overwhelming majority of unpremeditated murders? If not, then what “actually happens a lot more often than you’d think”, in a system we all agree is highly imperfect, is completely irrelevant.

Hello, complete nonsequitur.

Gary, do you seriously need somebody here to explain to you the obvious connection between delayed punishments and the Pinochet case?

37

cookie clemons 12.13.05 at 4:25 pm

We hold these truths to be self evident.

38

jayann 12.13.05 at 7:45 pm

By the way, I cannot wait for Chris and company’s impassioned defense of Pinochet.

(I’m simply an opponent of capital punishment as opposed to a subscriber to Chris’s arguments here): “defense” has at least two meanings in this context, surely? I’d “defend” Pinochet’s right to a fair trial and oppose capital punishment in his case, because I must; but you will not see any kind of impassioned or even feeble and bleating defence of him and his actions from me.

Doug
So another person’s life—in the case of T. McVeigh, another 168 persons’ lives, or in the case of that British doctor, something like 250 persons’ lives—is worth 15 years of their killers’ lives. That’s it. Nothing more.

Is this just?

Yes. Equality of persons before the law requires, IMO — perhaps paradoxically — that we do not weigh lives’ worth in that manner.

FYI Shipman (“that British doctor”) would almost certainly never have been released from gaol.

39

Doug 12.14.05 at 4:32 am

Jayann, how is it that Shipman would never have been released?

I can think of two ways — I’m remebering the UK definition of a “life” sentence wrong (entirely possible), or the UK has some means of holding people in prison who have served out their sentence. If so, that’s a funny way to run a justice system.

(Germany does have such a means, called Sicherheitsbewährung, in which people who have served out their full sentences but are still deemed a threat to society remain imprisoned. It is a funny way to run a justice system. Though not necessarily funny ha-ha.)

Anyway, this is a hard problem that societies cannot get away from, and I think that reasonable people can disagree on what a just punishment is.

T. Williams may have become a different person in the later stages of his life. His four victims are still the same, denied their futures by his deliberate actions. Society has to wrestle with that truth as well.

40

Gary Farber 12.14.05 at 10:25 am

“Gary, do you seriously need somebody here to explain to you the obvious connection between delayed punishments and the Pinochet case?”

No. I actually agree that there’s an argument there. I didn’t see it until merely better pointed out. I’ve never claimed to be terribly smart. Thanks. (Pray don’t reveal to the blog police that a point changed my mind.)

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