Their Loved Ones Will Not Rise Up From the Grave and Love Them
“To threaten me with death does not accomplish the means of the criminal justice system or satiate those who think my death or my demise will be a closure for them. Their loved ones will not rise up from the grave and love them. I wish they could. I sympathize or empathize with everyone who has lost a loved one. But I didn’t do it. My death would not mollify them.” (Stanley “Tookie” Williams)
What with the time difference and all, I was having a hard time figuring out exactly when the State of California planned to murder Stanley Williams.
The time set for the execution was 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, but when you read “one minute after midnight on Tuesday,” what you think is “Tuesday night.” What you think is that there’s more time than there is.
One minute after midnight at San Quentin, California, was one minute after nine in the morning in Pisa. I had been up for over an hour, searching for news on all the internet sites I could find: the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Sacramento Bee, the New York Times, KRON-TV (one of several San Francisco-based affiliates). I knew there wouldn’t be any coverage here, at least not until afterward. (See, e.g., “L’ultima notte del condannato Tookie,” and “Agonia di 22 minuti, poi l’addio: la California ha giustiziato Williams.”)
None of the US-based sites had been updated since 11:30 pm California time. That was a bad sign, because it meant there had been no last-minute reprieve, no change of heart from Governor Schwarzenegger. “Change of heart,” of course, implies that he has one, a fact that is nowhere in evidence.
According to most news analyses in the twelve hours or so before Williams’ execution, Schwarzenegger’s six-page denial of Williams’ clemency petition could be interpreted in only one way: Schwarzenegger had absolutely nothing to gain politically and much to lose by sparing Williams.
In other words, Williams got the needle because he was worth more votes dead than alive.
Rehabilitation was no reason to stop Williams’ execution — this from the governor who wants to bring “rehabilitation” back into the medieval, draconian, and much-sued California Department of Corrections.
All that mattered was that Williams’ trial hadn’t been “substantially flawed.”
In other words, what Schwarzenegger — and, presumably, his lawyers — focused on in his denial of Williams’ petition was the kind of legal minutiae that supreme courts are supposed to be in charge of unraveling, utterly ignoring the humanitarian and extra-legal considerations that are what bring prisoners to appeal to the governor in the first place: for clemency.
Not for a rehashing of the tautological argument that every slavering “Kill Tookie” freak has been trotting out for weeks: “The court found you guilty and therefore you are guilty.”
As if there were something objective, unbiased, and inherently fair about the court system.
Which is exactly the sort of thing people believe who’ve never been the victim of it and who have never seen how it actually works. Since I first set foot in a prison in 1997, I’ve been convinced of one thing: The world is split between people who have experienced (or can imagine) seeing someone they love behind bars, and those who have not, or cannot.
Between people who can imagine bad trouble in their families and in their lives and those who are convinced they are immune.
But guilty or not guilty is not the point. The true argument, which Schwarzenegger, cowardly, morally bankrupt Republican shill that he is, refused to address, is this: Should the government kill people in order to demonstrate that it is wrong to kill people?Responding to Williams’ clemency request with a legal analysis was far more than pretextual.It was a giant fuck-you to Williams.
Schwarzenegger’s kapos in the governor’s press office put it in much nicer words, of course, but the message was exactly the same as the one you could read over and over on the public message boards (such as the one at sfgate.com) right up until Williams’ state-sanctioned murder: “Die, you black bastard”; “Rot in hell”; “Hey Tookie, I’ll be waking up tomorrow morning but you won’t. How’s that feel?”
These are the sentiments of the people who support the death penalty because it reduces violence. These are the people who, one presumes, are occasionally able to wipe the froth off their lips long enough to go out in public and vote for politicians like Schwarzenegger. They are, in fact, the governor’s “base,” and fear of “eroding” that base, according to a half-dozen analysts, was crucial to Schwarzenegger’s decision to wash his hands of Stanley Williams.
Stanley Williams was no Jesus Christ, but Arnold Schwarzenegger was playing the role of Pontius Pilate to the hilt.
He’d heard the hoarse and bloodthirsty screams of the demented crowd outside and he decided he couldn’t risk the possibility that they might one day come for him.
“Give us Williams!” they brayed and hissed in their orgiastic frenzy.
And Schwarzenegger sent for a basin of water.
The gutless son of a bitch.
Schwarzenegger didn’t need to think Williams was innocent. He didn’t need to think Williams had gotten a bad trial. He didn’t need to be interested in the two new witnesses, recently identified, whose testimony we will now never hear. He didn’t even need to believe Williams was rehabilitated.
He simply needed to say that he wanted to play no part in such barbarism.
Among the points raised in Schwarzenegger’s denial is that Williams’ anti-violence books for children (eight of them), his ongoing efforts over many years to broker truces among gangs, his “Peace Protocols,” and his numerous statements urging young people away from drugs and gang-banging were, in essence, unproductive. “[T]he continued pervasiveness of gang violence leads one to question the efficacy of Williams’ message,” Schwarzenegger wrote.
In other words, Stanley Williams’ work didn’t stop any murders.
But, then, neither does the death penalty.
The only live coverage I could find was a streaming-video feed from the press room at San Quentin prison, where reporters waited for the official announcement of Williams’ death. To describe the macabre, offensive surreality of the atmosphere is essentially pointless: You already know what it was like. The reporters laughed and chatted. They yawned. They talked on their cell phones. They took off their coats and scarves and blew on their hands to warm them. They looked bored.
But suffering always takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. Auden told us so.
Not far away, meanwhile, it was taking a long time to kill Stanley Williams.
The phlebotomist needed eighteen minutes (or twelve, or twenty, depending upon whose estimate you believe), to locate a vein in Williams’ left arm. Williams was apparently bleeding all over the place from the repeated, failed attempts to place the left shunt, judging by the number of bloody alcohol wipes that media witnesses described seeing.
He’d been strapped down, in full restraint and with his hands bound to the gurney with tape, for just over thirty-six minutes when he finally died.
That detail about the tape intrigued me. Several media witnesses made a point of mentioning it: nearly an entire roll on each hand. A reporter who’d seen two executions at San Quentin said they’d done the same thing the time before. In other words, it wasn’t something unique to Williams.
Why would they do that, I wondered?
Because he might have made an obscene gesture during the fifteen or so minutes during which he was suffocating to death?
Or because the clenching and unclenching of his hands might have given someone the idea that he was in pain?
Mark J.S. Heath of New York, a medical doctor board certified in anesthesiology, maintains that “[the] lethal injection protocol creates an unacceptable risk that the inmate will not be anesthetized to the point of being unconscious and unaware of pain for the duration of the execution procedure. If the inmate is not first successfully anesthetized … the pancuronium will paralyze all voluntary muscles and mask external, physical indications of the excruciating pain being experienced by the inmate during the process of suffocating (caused by the pancuronium) and having a cardiac arrest (caused by the potassium chloride).”
During the press conference, a reporter asked Vernell Crittendon, the prison spokesperson, whether the prison would consider, for future executions, placing the phlebotomy shunts before bringing the prisoner to the death chamber. Crittendon answered, rather disingenuously, that courts had held that the public had a right to see the entire execution, and thus the entire process had to be performed before the public.
But of course the “public” doesn’t see anything. Thirty-nine people were allowed to attend Williams’ execution, seventeen of them “media witnesses.” During the post-execution press conference, all seventeen were trotted before the cameras and had a chance to tell what they’d seen.
They agreed about very little. One frowzy blonde said Williams had been “belligerent” (which San Quentin Warden Ornoski later confirmed was not the case). Several said he had been “resistant,” which others specifically contradicted, noting that Williams had, in fact, offered not the slightest physical resistance to the guards.
Several of the reporters spoke about the layout of the death chamber and the witness gallery, noting that many of them had “obstructed views.” They meant literally. But it became painfully obvious that some of the reporters had metaphorically obstructed views as well: what they saw was a big, black man, a big black criminal, and that was pretty much all.
When the process of getting the needle in him took some eleven minutes longer than usual and Williams was apparently exasperated, he said something to the phlebotomist. It was something along the lines of “Haven’t you got that yet?” or “Can’t you get that?” or “Are you doing that right?” or “Can’t you just do this?”, but the reporters who heard him speak couldn’t agree on the exact words.
These seventeen reporters were people who had witnessed a dramatic event only a few minutes earlier. They had notebooks and pencils with them in the death chamber and could write down what they were seeing literally as it it happened. As reporters, moreover, they were professional witnesses whose job was to remember and to convey accurately what they’d seen.
And yet they didn’t agree.
Death advocates, on the other hand, are quite comfortable with allowing the government to murder people on the basis of what is said by witnesses whose memories are years, even decades old by the time they get a chance to describe them in court. Witnesses who were, at the time of their witnessing, by definition terrified or shocked by what they were seeing.
That’s enough to give a person nightmares, all by itself.
* * * * *
Following all of this from Italy was, in a word, bizarre. I have to admit that I am glad not to have been in San Francisco over the past few days, where people were apparently driving down the street with “Death for Tookie” banners in their car windows. I was glad to be in a place where Williams wasn’t the only possible topic of conversation among acquaintances, among the people in the adjoining cubicles at work, among strangers. I am relieved not to have spent the last couple of weeks listening to newscasts in which the same idiotic pundits said the same idiotic things (such as “the death penalty deters crime”) and were never challenged, all in the interest of “balanced” reporting.
I am not sorry to have missed the “analyses” or the rehashing of the polls that say “most” Americans favor the death penalty, as though “most” people haven’t mostly been wrong about most things over the course of history (the flatness of the earth and the war in Vietnam come to mind). I am very glad to be in a place where practically no one ever says, “Most Italians….”
But I do miss some things. Being among people who understand why Williams’ death is so upsetting, for one. How it represents the umpteenth betrayal by the place to which I am bound by birth, by language, by the color of my passport, the parent who always, always wounds you.
When California began executing prisoners again on a late-April day in 1992 (after a moratorium of twenty-five years), the first victim of the machinery of state-sponsored death was Robert Alton Harris (“For sport, [Harris’s] father would load a gun and tell [Harris and his siblings] they had thirty minutes to hide outside the house, after which he would shoot them down like animals”).
After Harris was killed in the gas chamber at San Quentin, I attended a large public memorial service for him in San Francisco. I don’t remember much about it except that it felt important to be there. Some of Harris’s relatives had come — his brother, perhaps? The service was terribly sad, I do recall that, but I knew I wasn’t grieving for Harris. I was grieving for fucked-up lives and what happens to the people who live them.
For the way power is inexorable.
This is the first time in five months I’ve felt truly, deeply American.