Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment nearly 30 years ago, only one governor - Virginia's George Allen in 1997 - said he took someone off death row due to character reform. Now, California's governor can take this courageous stand.
On Thursday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) will hold a hearing to decide whether to grant clemency to Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a cofounder of the Crips, a violent Los Angeles street gang. Mr. Williams is scheduled to be executed Dec. 13.
The case is far from clear-cut. Hollywood celebrities, politicians, and other death-penalty opponents are urging limited mercy (life in prison without parole) because Williams has transformed into an anti-gang activist, apologized for starting the Crips, and written children's books to discourage kids from joining gangs.
But law enforcement officials, victims' rights defenders, family members of the victims, and even a grim radio show called the "Kill Tookie" hour won't accept anything less than execution for this man convicted of four murders. He hasn't accepted responsibility for the killings, and so isn't truly reformed, they say. Williams maintains his innocence.
Were prisoner repentance to become more widely accepted as a reason to commute a death sentence, that would take the nation a welcome step closer to eliminating the immoral practice of capital punishment.
The nation's support for the death penalty is waning. Over the past five years, juries handed out far fewer capital sentences and executions dropped. One reason is concern over possible execution of the innocent, reinforced by DNA technology. Another is that many states introduced life-without-parole as an alternative to execution. The Gallup Poll finds support for the death penalty drops from three-quarters to about half when life-without-parole is an option. And the Supreme Court recently ruled it unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded and juveniles.
But what about character reform as cause for mercy? The Williams murders were gruesome, leaving behind deep emotional pain. That's why those opposing clemency believe he should pay with his life - and thus, they say, teach violent gang members a lesson.
Such justifications, as well as a desire for revenge, are understandable, but offbase. Capital punishment does not deter murder. States with the death penalty have a higher rate of murder than those without it. And even the brother of one of Williams's victims acknowledges that revenge is self-perpetuating. Additionally, a state's most basic duty to its citizens is to protect life, not take it.
But there's a moral side to this debate, and that's where redemption comes in. Capital punishment violates the Mosaic command, "Thou shalt not kill." All lives have value, and a life redeemed - even partially - comes closer to realizing a life of purpose than one cut short. Williams's continued outreach illustrates this.
By reducing Williams's sentence to life-without-parole, Mr. Schwarzenegger can assure that the former gang leader still pays his debt to society, but also improves it - and himself. Such a decision can inch America toward yet another reason to end the death penalty. This practice, not a human being, deserves an execution.