Epitaph for Tookie

Copyright by Evans D. Hopkins



Twenty years ago, while serving a life sentence for armed robbery in the Virginia State Penitentiary, I stayed up all night writing an article for the Washington Post on the execution of Morris Mason, a retarded man who had been put to death in the state's electric chair, in a death chamber beneath my cell. It had become my custom to stay up through the night on the occasions of electrocutions, believing that by letting people see what was going on through the eyes of a prisoner living above the death house, I might somehow help bring an end to the practice.

But Virginia continued on the road to becoming second only to Texas in the number of executions per year. And though my articles on the death penalty helped me to become one of the nation's most widely-read prison writers, I stopped writing about the death penalty after a man who had been a friend was put to death, and after I began to have nightmares that I was on death row, and of having guards throw me into the chair.

But tonight, as I watch the preparations for the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams on the television in my living room, I cannot help but imagine the anger and rage and vehement cursing of the men who are locked down in San Quentin. But now I am also able to look at the crowds gathered in vigil from a different vantage point; to listen to those on television praising the death penalty from the vantage point of a free citizen faced with the fear of violent crime; and to watch the celebrities and experts rail against the Williams impending execution from the point-of-view of now being an author, of having done television and radio, perhaps with the power to have weighed in on William's case before now.

I could certainly feel some empathy for his plight, I suppose. We are both the same age, both came under the sway of groupthink in our teens - he by founding the Crips street gang, and I, by joining the Black Panther Party; and we both sought personal and social redemption by writing from prison. I can only wonder if, after eight years of freedom, I have become like most of American society, accustomed to the idea of death, of one life meaning little in the scheme of things. Or perhaps my silence has more to do with not wanting to feel like I was once again writing in a losing cause, that America loves the death penalty too much to be swayed by international opinion -- much less just one more voice.

But the two thousand protestors I watch on television, standing in the chill outside San Quentin, presents tangible evidence that public opinion regarding the use of the death penalty is changing. The fact that Williams garnered such support in this country and around the world, not because of his professed innocence, but because they believe that he is a changed man, shows that there is, indeed, power in the idea of the redemption of man.

Though the idea of the possibility of man's redemption is a central tenet of Christianity, it's ironic that this idea often seems lost in the spiritual awakening said to be afoot in America. When a friend calls while I am channel surfing for news and views on Williams, I ask her if she believes in capital punishment.

"Yes," she tells me. "I believe that there is good and evil, and that God wants us to destroy evil people."

I become impatient and tell her, "How a person who believes their Savior was martyred by the death penalty -- and who professes to understand the meaning of Jesus pardoning the thief beside him on the cross -- can also be in favor of capital punishment, is beyond me."

When I return to the TV, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is before the cameras, saying, "Stanley is at peace. He knows that he will be a martyr for good."

Will Williams' death actually bring about some changes in the way we view the death penalty? I wonder, when I turn to another station and hear the stridency of Nancy Grace and her guests, with attitudes that border on being bloodthirsty. I turn to another station, and Larry King has on several guests, including Mike Farrell (of M.A.S.H. fame,) and the right-wing talk show host Dennis Praeger. Farrell, a long-time opponent of capital punishment, is tearing into Praeger. "You sit there licking your lips about the death of a human being. You disgust me."

It is time for me to cut off the tube and start writing.

There is a lot of anger surrounding the issue - a lot of displaced anger regarding crime, and lot of rage about everything. The death penalty is an easy way for many to feel mean-spirited and vengeful. Never mind the fact that studies show that it's not a deterrent. Never mind the fact that violent crime - and indeed, all crime - has been going down for years. Never mind the scores from death rows who have been proven innocent by DNA and other evidence. We want revenge on somebody, and can one expect from a country attacked by a group comprised mainly of Saudi Arabians, which then attacks Iraq? I mean, if we don't have a death penalty, what will all those cops on TV have to threaten "perps," in order to make them confess? Why, they might have to start using torture again.

Indeed, the correlation between real and imagined violence and the fear that feeds the death penalty (and the incarceration of more than two million of our fellow citizens) has a lot to do with what we watch on television and film, in video games and gangster rap videos. I've spent twenty years in prison, but I still get scared of what I see around me sometimes. I speak in the schools regularly now, in an attempt to get young people to stay straight, with my own story as warning. Speaking at a Columbus, OH, middle-school last month, to an assembly of boys, I began asking questions of the unruly group of 150, in order quiet them a bit. "How many of you want to be doctors?" A few of them raised their hands. "How many of you want to be lawyers?" A few more hands.

"How many would like to be basketball stars?" Sixty percent hands. "Rappers?" Seventy per cent or so. "How many want to be gangsters?" Fully fifty percent raised their hands. Then I asked them how many wanted to go to the penitentiary when they grew up. I got no hands then. Only quiet.

This memory comes to me as it nears 2:30 am. In a half-hour Stanley Williams will be dead. He probably knew that he had no chance of getting a pardon. But he tried to make amends with his books, and he was successful in bringing people to not only his cause, but the ongoing crusade against capital punishment. It is easy to be hard. I know from experience, and I think those who are proponents of the death penalty and revenge, unconsciously know this too. Perhaps the silent crowd outside San Quentin will be the impetus for a new movement, one based upon the idea of the redemption of man. But they have a lot of hard-hearted people to change.