I pondered titling this post “What is prison for, really?”, but decided to go with the title you see now. At 12:01am PST this morning, Stanley “Tookie” Williams was put to death. To many people across this country, that’s all he is/was. What is disturbing is what this says about our justice system, specifically the role of prisons or the death penalty in deterring crime. I have always thought that the role of the justice system, in regards to prison, was to rehabilitate the criminal. Granted there are some instances where this can’t be accomplished with even the heaviest handed prison sentence. But was that the case with Tookie Williams? In his autobiography, he mentions being the co-founder of the L.A. Crips street gang. This gave him the sort of notoriety that many prisoners on Death Row (not the record label) do not enjoy.
Back to my original thought: What is the purpose of our current prison system? If it is to rehabilitate criminals, how do we discern whether said criminal has been rehabilitated? By many accounts, the death of Tookie Williams is a sad one. Here was a man that made many mistakes in his youth. (ed. note: Haven’t we all?) What differentiates the mistakes most of us make to the ones that Tookie made is the fact that his were lethal. If you believe, as I do, that a person can be rehabilitated, be it as a result of the prison system or from drug treatment, then you have to try and set a standard by which to gauge that rehabilitation. Many proponents of the death penalty state that the overwhelming factor that caused them to support putting Mr. Williams to death was the fact that he didn’t acknowledge his role in the murders of the 4 people he was convicted of killing. I know it sounds cliche, but what if he really didn’t do it? Can we trust life-long criminals to tell the truth? Because that was the testimony that put Williams at the scene of the 4 murders. Some of the prosecution’s witnesses were hardened criminals with something to gain from their testimony. I am not saying he didn’t commit the crimes, but nor am I saying he did. I don’t know. For all practical purposes humans are fallible. Because we are emotional beings, that emotion tends to sway us one way or another when dealing with crime and punishment. In a capital murder case, for example, if the victim was a frail individual and the alleged perpetrator is seen as rough and tough in the eyes of the jury, that will definitely sway the jury even if the facts presented are questionable at best. So how do we as a society come to grips with our shortcomings in deciding justice?
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, in an interview following the death of Tookie Williams, said that this will cast new doubts and raise the level of debate on the death penalty. Not that I buy all of what he’s selling, but I happen to agree with him on this instance. I think the death of Tookie Williams will raise the level of debate in this country over the death penalty. All of the facts in a case need to be weighed, including the reliability of witnesses. I think the jury should know, in advance, of what, if any, benefits are given criminals in exchange for testimony against another criminal.
I don’t know if we will ever be able to get rid of the death penalty. I hope so, but I doubt it. In a case like Tookie’s, I feel he did rehabilitate himself, even if he didn’t apologize for killing the 4 people he was accused of killing. His sentence would have been better served had Gov. Schwarzenegger commuted it to life in prison without parole.
I hope you all, upon reading this, will reexamine the death penalty as well as punishment in general, in your own minds. If prison is indeed meant to not only punish, but rehabilitate the criminal, then we need to set some standard by which to measure the rehabilitation of the prisoner. This does not always mean requiring them to apologize or acknowledge their crime, although if the actual hard evidence does show, without a doubt, they committed the crime then that condition should be set. I’ll admit that I am not a professor of even a student of the law, but I know an injustice when I see one. Tookie Williams’ death was an injustice to us all.