The senior partner of the law firm has to leave town, so he entrusts a difficult criminal defense to the young associate. The kid is thrilled to have this chance to prove himself and sure enough, he gets their man acquitted. In his excitement, he fires off a telegram to the senior partner at his hotel: JUSTICE HAS TRIUMPHED. The next morning, he finds a telegram from the old man at the top of his In box: APPEAL AT ONCE.
This story comes back to me in pondering the fate of Tookie Williams. Williams, a co-founder of the notorious Crips gang, was sentenced to death in 1979 for four murders, including three members of an Asian family who ran a convenience store. He always claimed that he was innocent of those crimes and in recent years his outward sincerity won him many supporters, including a number of high-profile celebrities. The last month, in particular, featured a cacophony of special pleading by this claque, mostly directed at Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had the power to grant clemency. It was their contention that justice had no more triumphed in Tookie's conviction than it had in O.J. Simpson's acquittal.
To be forthright, I must confess that I share their skepticism of this verdict. The witnesses who testified against him were all criminals who benefited from their testimony. Additionally, none of them are alive any longer. And in the case of the last three murders, the Asian family of convenience store owners, even the witnesses did not claim to have seen the act. They merely testified that he had boasted of the shooting. As ghoulish as it is to have a gang culture in which crowing about murders is a sign of virility, the fact is that plenty of punks claim to be the authors of grisly unsolved killings just to promote their fearsome repute. This is hardly the quality of evidence that one hopes to see in a capital case.
Yet I do not believe that clemency was indicated. Because we can say with absolute certainty that this man was a murderer, whether or not he ever pulled a trigger. Creating the Crips and leading them is by definition conspiracy to kill. The Crips, in his day even more so than now, are a savage conclave bent on ruling their turf by the sword, and the bloodier the sword the better. An awful lot of body bags have been invested in carting off Crips handiwork. Do we need to find that Eichmann physically killed a person to condemn him for the death of millions? Should we free Saddam Hussein since he had henchmen do all his dirty work?
True, this would not have been a legitimate argument in advance of a verdict. The jury would not have been justified to convict him of those murders simply because they thought he deserved to be reckoned a murderer for birthing the Crips. Their job was to weigh the evidence of the particular charges. But once they made their call, there was no moral obligation on us to undo their decision, even if we questioned their judgment. To be moved by a moral impetus to contest a verdict requires a firm determination that "this man is not a murderer." No one could say that of Williams, inventor of a killing machine that draws blood constantly, scarring our major cities.
If it is true that he was a profound penitent, that his lectures and his children's books have been effective in curbing violence, then this is certainly laudable. If we preach a gospel that precludes murder from redemption because the victim's life cannot be retrieved, then we remove from the one-time murderer any motivation to restrain himself from killing his next annoyer. Instead, we hearken to one of the first stories in the Bible, where Cain, although banished as a penance, was given the opportunity to repair the rest of his life and achieve a measure of redemption. His children built cities (Genesis 4:17), invented the system of mobile cattle herding (4:20), instrumental music (4:21) and metalworking (4:22). Indeed, according to the Jewish tradition, Noah's wife was Naamah, a descendant of Cain, which makes him our maternal grandpa.
Williams is gone now; let the heavens do the judging from here on out. But if there is all this unconsummated celebrity energy in the atmosphere, put it to work. Let that desire for positive change, to fix problems rather than surrendering to them, to seek repentance and redemption over vengeance and vindictiveness, be channeled. It should be directed into the saving of all the Crips and all the Bloods; through a combination of open-door ministries and crunching police work we can eliminate these gangs altogether. Now is the time: justice has triumphed and the weather is clement.