Of Tookie, Death, and Redemption

I won't even begin to defend Stanley ("Tookie") Williams, one of the founders of the Crips gang, nor will I call into question his guilt. There may somewhere, somehow be doubts that he was responsible for the murders that landed him in jail, but those doubts aren't mine to raise.

What disappoints me about the fact that Williams was put to death by lethal injection last night (not 20 miles from here, natch) is that California--and the US as a whole--still sees capital punishment as a reasonable thing, despite its flaws and its somewhat ludicrous hypocritical nature ("We'll kill you to show that killing is wrong").

What disappoints me is that we as a society don't seem willing to let prisoners redeem themselves behind bars. Without question, the work Williams did while incarcerated to steer kids and teenagers away from the same gang life that did him in does not--will not, never can--excuse his senseless and violent crimes. But why couldn't we let that work be a sign of redemption, a sign that Williams became in prison a different man entirely than the one he was on the streets? Why can't we trust that sometimes (though by no means all the time) redemption within the criminal justice system is not only possible, but a sign that perhaps something in a prisoner's life is finally going right?

I can't speak for the families of Tookie Williams' victims; perhaps his death really did bring them a sense of finality, of justice served, of a wrong partially made right. Neither I nor anyone else not standing inside those families' skins can ever know for sure what it's like. But it would seem that the larger message sent by putting Williams to death was less one of justice and more one of hopelessness: if even Williams, who came so far from where he started, wasn't worth saving for the good he started (and likely would've continued) to do, what of the millions of others behind bars? Has our criminal justice system failed so completely that we've given up on all of them, too?

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