Cruel and Unusual


Anxiety shook me when my fifth-grade teacher assigned us a paragraph on what we thought about Stanley “Tookie” William’s death sentence. Williams, a former leader of the Crips charged with several accounts of first-degree murder, was put on death row in California. In prison, he began writing anti-gang and anti-violence books for children, some of which we had read in class.

Williams became an icon for many activists and leaders, with more than 2,000 attending his funeral. Before his execution, he left behind a recorded message for his mourners. “The war within me is over. I battled my demons and was triumphant,” Williams said in his recording. “Teach them how to avoid our destructive footsteps. Teach them to strive for higher education. Teach them to promote peace and teach them to focus on rebuilding the neighborhoods that you, others and I helped destroy.”

As a fledgling 10-year-old citizen, I had vague intuitions about the dilemma of justice presented before me. Part of me questioned whether it was morally just to penalize murder by executing murder under the thin veil of a bureaucratic procedure. As a young adult, I am more cognizant of the rhetorical moves supporters and opposers of this legal process use, which I explore here.

To begin with, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in California, citing that it violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Carney also contended that the system also leaves inmates with undecided fates for decades. In the past seven years, six states have abolished the death penalty, but in 2012, California voters rejected such a ban.

One argument weighing in favor of the death penalty is grounded in utility — how useful or beneficial to the majority something is. For example, murder is reasonably considered a crime against society, and it would seem to benefit society as a whole to eliminate anyone who poses a threat to the so-called greater good. But a stronger utilitarian argument exists for abolishing the death penalty. Fiscally speaking, putting a prisoner on death row is expensive and wastes taxpayer money that could go to other social service programs. California has spent $4 billion on death row inmates since 1978, which boils down to roughly $177 million per inmate a year. The money accrues from factors such as costlier lawyers, as well as incarceration expenses such as individual cells and multiple guards present for visitors. The death row population in California is currently at 748 inmates, but only 13 inmates have been executed since 1978.

In the same vein of utility, proponents also suggest the death penalty also deters murder. But other factors, such as demography, policing, culture and the job market, could also affect the murder rate. In fact, an epistemological study conducted by America’s National Research Council found in 2012 that research to date is not informative about whether or not the death penalty bears any weight on fluctuating homicide rates. Life imprisonment without parole, however, is a considerable alternative to the death penalty that can substantially yield social utility (not to say, though, that life imprisonment isn’t severe). Craig Datesman, for example, an inmate at Gratersford Prison in Pennsylvania, has coordinated a program called Lifers to help younger people who have trouble with the law go “straight.” Life imprisonment may also offer grieving families of victims financial and emotional restitution. One concept involves having lifers work in prisons for better wages in order to offer the victim’s family financial restitution, one figure set at $150,000. Additionally,Murder Victim Families For Reconciliation, for example, opposes the death penalty and emphasizes justice as a transformation from violence to healing.

In contrast, those who advocate the death penalty also appeal to the more individualistic argument of human dignity. They lever the “life for a life” argument, suggesting that the death penalty approaches the defendant with human dignity, treating him or her as a free moral agent. Institutionalizing a correction legal process like the death penalty enables the government to protect the “negative rights” (freedom from interference) of citizens, like the right not to be killed.

But what about mistakes? Legally, the death penalty may not be so clean or clear-cut after all, extinguishing the rights of those who are innocent. A study conducted by statisticians and legal experts reveals that almost 4 percent of U.S. capital punishment sentences are wrongfully convicted and that about 120 of 3,000 inmates are not guilty. Medically speaking, botched lethal injections can be easily interpreted as experimental and cruel. Clayton Lockett, for example, was given a new three-drug method that left him in pain for several minutes, dying 43 minutes after his injection. One alternative to the lethal injection death is a firing squad death, which is only legal in Utah. It can bring about heart death in about one minute. But the mental image of a firing squad is gruesome, uncovering an uncomfortable moral question about state-sanctioned death.

To this day, I don’t recall what I wrote for my assignment. But the fear and shock remain. As a child yet to be corrupted by cynicism, I wondered what redemption meant and if the most extreme measures of institutionalized retributive measures could ever make up for the loss in human life, which may or may not have been carried out heinously. I was aghast by how the line between life and death depended so much upon social mores. But I was also aghast by how it depended so much on the whims of one authoritative individual — in this case, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who denied Williams clemency. The only difference is that now, as a young adult, I bluntly oppose the death penalty as a means of administering justice.


Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected]

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  • Mel Content

    Here are some details you left out of your little boo-hoo fest:

    On February 28, 1979, Stanley Williams murdered Albert Lewis Owens during a robbery of a 7-Eleven convenience store in Whittier, California. Here are the details of that crime from the The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s response to Williams petition for executive clemency.

    Late on the evening of February 27, 1979, Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams introduced his friend Alfred Coward, a.k.a. “Blackie,” to a man named Darryl. A short time later, Darryl, driving a brown station wagon, drove Williams to the residence of James Garrett. Coward followed in his 1969 Cadillac. (Trial Transcript (TT) 2095-2097). Stanley Williams often stayed at the Garrett residence and kept some of his belongings there, including his shotgun. (TT 1673, 1908).

    At the Garrett residence, Williams went inside and returned carrying a twelve-gauge shotgun. (TT 2097-2098). Darryl and Williams, with Coward following in his car, later drove to another residence, where they obtained a PCP-laced cigarette, which the three men shared.

    Williams, Coward and Darryl then went to the residence of Tony Sims. (TT 2109). These four men then discussed where they could go in Pomona to make some money. (TT 2111). The four men then went to yet another residence where they smoked more PCP. (TT 2113-2116).

    While at this location, Williams left the other men and returned with a .22 caliber handgun, which he also put in the station wagon. (TT 2117-2118). Williams then told Coward, Darryl and Sims they should go to
    Pomona. In response, Coward and Sims entered the Cadillac, Williams and Darryl entered the station wagon, and both cars traveled on the freeway toward Pomona. (TT 2118-2119).

    The four men exited the freeway near Whittier Boulevard. (TT 2186). They drove to a Stop-N-Go market and, at Williams’ direction, Darryl and Sims entered the store to commit a robbery. At the time, Darryl was armed with the .22 caliber handgun. (TT 2117-2218; Tony Sims’ Parole Hearing Dated July 17, 1997).

    Johnny Garcia Escapes Death

    The clerk at the Stop-N-Go market, Johnny Garcia, had just finished mopping the floor when he observed a station wagon and four black men at the door to the market. (TT 2046-2048). Two of the men entered the market. (TT 2048). One of the men went down an aisle while the other approached Garcia.

    The man that approached Garcia asked for a cigarette. Garcia gave the man a cigarette and lit it for him. After approximately three to four minutes, both men left the market without carrying out the planned robbery. (TT 2049-2050).

    He Would Show Them How

    Williams became upset that Darryl and Sims did not commit the robbery. Williams told the men that they would find another place to rob. Williams said that at the next location all of them would go inside and he would show them how to commit a robbery.

    Coward and Sims then followed Williams and Darryl to the 7-Eleven market located at 10437 Whittier Boulevard. (TT 2186). The store clerk, twenty-six year old Albert Lewis Owens, was sweeping the store parking lot. (TT 2146).

    Albert Owens Killed

    When Darryl and Sims entered the 7-Eleven, Owens put the broom and dust pan down and followed them into the store. Williams and Coward followed Owens into the store. (TT 2146-2152). As Darryl and Sims walked to the counter area to take money from the register, Williams walked behind Owens and told him “shut up and keep walking.” (TT 2154). While pointing a shotgun at Owens’ back, Williams directed him to a back storage room. (TT 2154).

    Once inside the storage room, Williams, at gunpoint, ordered Owens to “lay down, mother f*****.” Williams then chambered a round into the shotgun. Williams then fired the round into the security monitor. Williams then chambered a second round and fired the round into Owens’ back as he lay face down on the floor of the storage room. Williams then fired again into Owens’ back. (TT 2162).

    Near Contact Wound

    Both of the shotgun wounds were fatal. (TT 2086). The pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Owens testified that the end of the barrel was “very close” to Owens’ body when he was shot. One of the two wounds was described as “. . . a near contact wound.” (TT 2078).

    After Williams murdered Owens, he, Darryl, Coward and Sims fled in the two cars and returned home to Los Angeles. The robbery netted them approximately $120.00. (TT 2280).

    ‘Killing All White People’

    Once back in Los Angeles, Williams asked if anyone wanted to get something to eat. When Sims asked Williams why he shot Owens, Williams said he “didn’t want to leave any witnesses.” Williams also said he
    killed Owens “because he was white and he was killing all white people.” (TT 2189, 2193).

    Later that same day, Williams bragged to his brother Wayne about killing Owens. Williams said, “you should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him.” Williams then made gurgling or growling noises and laughed hysterically about Owens’ death. (TT 2195-2197).

    Here you are, all concerned about the “cruel and unusual punishment” of a filthy subhuman convicted murderer, all because some goody-goody anti-death-penalty advocate help ghost-write a silly little children’s book for him. Where in the h#ll is your concern about the “cruel and unusual punishment” of Tookie’s victim? You think you’re morally superior, but in reality you’re one sick little girl….

    • Mel Content

      On March 11, 1979, Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams murdered three members of the Yang family at their motel in Los Angeles. Here are the details of that crime from the The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s response to Williams petition for executive clemency.

      At approximately 5:00 a.m. on March 11, 1979, Stanley Williams entered the Brookhaven Motel at 10411 South Vermont Avenue. (Trial Transcript (TT) 1411). After entering the public lobby area, Williams broke down the door that led to the private office.

      Once inside the private office, Williams, using his shotgun, killed seventy-six year old Yen-I Yang; Williams also killed Yang’s wife, sixty-three year old Tsai-Shai Yang; lastly, Williams killed Yang’s daughter, forty-three year old Yee-Chen Lin. Williams then removed the currency from the cash register and fled the location. (TT 1406-1442, 1562-1563, 1677-1720, 1915-1927).

      Robert Yang was asleep with his wife in their bedroom at the Brookhaven Motel when he was awakened by the sound of somebody breaking down the door to the motel’s office. This sound was immediately followed by the sound of his mother or sister screaming, followed by gun shots. (TT 1409, 1411, 1433).

      Son Finds Family Shot

      When Robert entered the motel office he found his mother, his sister, and his father had all been shot. (TT 1412-1413). Robert observed that the cash register was open and money was missing. (TT 1414). It was later determined that the robbery of the Brookhaven Motel and the murder
      of the three members of the Yang family netted Stanley Williams approximately $100.

      Robert Yang called 9-1-1. Two deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arrived within approximately ten minutes. (TT 1416). When the deputies entered the motel they noticed a strong odor of gun powder. (TT 1500). The deputies observed that the door leading from the public entrance into Yang’s private living quarters had been forced open and the doorjamb was split open and the woodwork was torn away from the doorjamb. (TT 1508).

      Gasping For Air

      As they entered, they saw Yen-I Yang lying on a sofa. He was “soaked with blood,” “gasping for air, and making gurgling noises.” (TT 1501). They also saw the bloodied body of Tsai-Shai Yang. She was making “gurgling noises” and “gasping for air,” with “her knees drawn up under her, and her face down on the floor,” as if she had been forced to bow down before being killed. (TT 1502). Lastly, the deputies found the body of Yee-Chen Lin lying on the hallway floor.

      According to the forensic pathologist, Yen-I Yang suffered two shotgun wounds. One shotgun wound was to his left arm and abdomen. This wound shredded Yen-I’s left arm, fractured his ribs, and shattered his spleen,right kidney, bowel and large vessels. The other shotgun wound was to
      the lower left chest. This wound also fractured ribs and shattered the spleen, right kidney, bowel and large vessels.

      Evidence Found at Scene

      Moreover, a plastic shotgun shot container and associated wadding were recovered from the base of Yen-I’s liver. The pathologist further explained that both of the Yen-I Yang’s wounds were inflicted when the end of the muzzle was only feet from Yen-I’s body. Despite the severity of these wounds, Yen-I clung to life. He was transported from the scene by paramedics to Daniel Freeman Hospital where he died at 6:53 a.m.

      Yee-Chen Lin was shot once in the upper left face area at a distance of a few feet. Despite the truly horrific nature of the wound Stanley Williams inflicted upon her, Yee-Chen also clung to life. She was transported from the scene by paramedics to Centinela Hospital where she died at 7:36 a.m.

      Shot at Close Range

      Tsai-Shai was shot twice at close range. The pathologist explained that one shotgun wound was to the coccyx or tail bone. Based on the physical characteristics of the wound and the fact that wadding, along with the plastic shot container, were recovered just beneath the skin of this wound, the muzzle of the gun must have been just inches from her body when she was shot and killed. (TT 1453).

      The other shotgun wound was to the anterior abdomen with the charge entering at the naval. At trial, the pathologist testified that the muzzle of the gun was a few feet from Tsai-Shai’s body when the shot that caused this wound was fired. (TT 1454).

      • Mel Content

        The Evidence Against Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams

        Firearm Evidence Points to Williams’ Shotgun

        The Los Angeles County District Attorney filed a response opposing Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams’ petition for executive clemency from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger outlining the original evidence against him.

        Here are excerpts from that 57-page response.

        Firearm Evidence

        One expended twelve-gauge shotgun shell was recovered by investigators during the crime scene investigation at the Brookhaven Motel. (TT 1506-1507). This expended shell was received as exhibit 9E at trial. (TT 1514, 1862-1863, 2300). During the course of investigating the Brookhaven Motel murders, investigators recovered Williams’ shotgun. (TT 1479-1489, 1691, 1863-1864, 1871-1872).

        This shotgun, a twelve-gauge High Standard slide-action shotgun bearing serial number 3194397, was received into evidence as exhibit 8. (TT 1487). In addition, a federal “Firearms Transaction Record” was received into evidence as exhibit 33. (TT 1483).

        This document records Williams’ purchase of the shotgun, trial exhibit 8, on February 25, 1974. Williams signed the transaction record and used his California driver’s license for identification purposes when he purchased the shotgun. At trial, a certified copy of Williams’ driver’s license was received as exhibit 32. (TT 1485).

        Fired From Williams’ Gun

        At trial, a firearms expert testified that the expended twelve-gauge shotgun shell that was recovered by investigators at the Brookhaven Motel, trial exhibit 9E, was fired from Williams’ shotgun, trial exhibit 8, to the exclusion of all other firearms. (TT 1522-1523).

        Two expended twelve-gauge shotgun shells were recovered by investigators during the crime scene investigation at the 7-Eleven. (TT 1979-1980, 1984). These expended shells were received as trial exhibits 9C and 9D. (TT 1982).

        Shotgun Not Ruled Out

        Although these two shells lacked sufficient identifying characteristics to be conclusively matched to Williams’ shotgun, the firearms expert testified that they were consistent with having been fired from that weapon. (TT 2301-2310).

        Moreover, the firearms expert did not find any dissimilarity that would exclude trial exhibits 9C and 9D from having been fired from Williams’ shotgun. (TT 2301-2310).

    • And how does executing him fix any of that? Although this guy is guilty beyond the shadow of a doubt, there is no cost-efficient and justice way to assure that of everyone convicted of murder.

      • Mel Content

        And how does executing him fix any of that?

        One less body that needs to be fed, clothed, and sheltered by the taxpayers. One less occupant of a prison who required guards and medical care. One less mascot for the gullible to fawn over. I could go on…

        • For this guy, probably. For the vast majority of murderers, no. There is no cost effective way to give everyone convicted of a capital crime the level of justice and review that an execution warrants. Yes, it goes against my tribal gut feeling that says we should just shoot them behind the jailhouse, but I’d rather live in a society that has more safeguards than that. If we had unlimited resources we could fully give every case the justice it deserves, but we simply do not. It seems backwards, but keeping him alive is cheaper for society than taking his life.

          • peepsqueek

            I would give the death penalty for dozens of crimes, to include hitting an old lady over the head and robbing her, repeat offender child molesters, illegal dumping of carcinogenic waste into our ground water and waterways, politicians who get caught in overt corruption and bribery activities, WallStreet bankers who conduct illegal activities that cause innocent citizens to lose their life saving, etc, etc. It is kinder in the long run.