Sunday, December 11, 2005


=Sunday, December 11, 2005

Two-thirds in state support the death penalty, but polls haven't asked questions about redemption
By Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer

Pollsters regularly measure the public's opinion of the death penalty, but there is scant research on the soul-searching question that shrouds the case of Stanley Tookie Williams, the quadruple killer and gang founder who is scheduled to be executed Tuesday in San Quentin prison:

Do you believe that inmates have the capacity to reform?

Advocates on both sides of the death penalty issue believe that Californians are having their most introspective public discussion in decades about whether the state should execute people.

Though polls show that two-thirds of Californians support the death penalty, the cultural landscape has slowly been changing. From the Legislature's 2004 creation of a commission that is examining flaws in the capital punishment system, to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger adding the word "rehabilitation" to the title of the state Department of Corrections this year, there are signs of introspection behind the poll numbers.

In January, the Assembly will hold a hearing on a bill that would halt executions until January 2009, a year after the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice's report on capital punishment is supposed to be done.

The public conversation was jump-started this fall with Oscar winner Jamie Foxx and hip-hop star Snoop Dogg touting Williams' post-incarceration redemption. Soon it will be hard for Californians to escape hard questions about the death penalty that go beyond the Williams case.

California is on track to execute three people in the next two months, a sharp jump for a state that has put to death just 11 people in the past 13 years.

Scheduled to be executed Jan. 17 is 75-year-old Clarence Ray Allen, who is legally blind, diabetic and uses a wheelchair. Allen, who was serving a life sentence for murder when he was convicted of arranging the killings of three people, would be the oldest person executed in the United States since the death penalty was restored in 1977.

Michael Morales, a convicted murderer from Lodi, is expected to get an execution date in February or early March.

"When there is an execution every 18 months or two years, people have been able to go back into their holes and not think about it for while," said Elisabeth Semel, a UC Berkeley law professor and director of the Death Penalty Clinic at Boalt Hall, which advocates for death row inmates.

At the same time, Semel said, some advocates are worried that by March, Californians will be "Texified" -- so numb to state-sponsored killing that the anti-death-penalty movement withers. Texas is far and away the nation's leader in executions, having put 355 inmates to death since 1977.

Semel and other death penalty opponents hope the public conversation extends beyond the black-or-white question that most pollsters put to people: Do you believe in the death penalty?

The answer to that question is solidly "yes," but support drops when pollsters start asking more complex questions.

In March 2004, 68 percent of the 958 registered California voters responding to a Field Poll said they supported the death penalty. But what Field pollsters called a "sizable minority" -- 31 percent -- said they didn't think the punishment had been imposed on convicted criminals in a manner that was "generally fair and free of error."

And when given the choice of punishing first-degree murder with death or life imprisonment with no parole, 53 percent chose life without parole in a Public Policy Institute of California survey in February 2004.

Several high-profile statewide political races next year will keep the conversation going.

"Oh, this next year is going to be a hot one, with the governor's race and the attorney general and all the district attorneys races," said Harriet Salarno, president of Crime Victims United, a statewide advocacy organization that supports the death penalty.

"The thing you have to remember is that no matter what the governor decides on clemency (for Williams), the people that oppose the death penalty are the same Hollywood people who want Williams to go free," said Salarno, whose daughter was murdered 26 years ago on her first day of class at the University of the Pacific. "We have to make sure that the people who shout the loudest aren't the only ones who are heard."

The next few months may also bring some public opinion data that offer deeper insight into California's soul-searching.

"As rehabilitation becomes more in vogue, there may be more interest in discussing policy alternatives," said the Field Poll's Mark DiCamillo. He said there is a strong chance that Field will ask Californians their thoughts on rehabilitation early next year.

"But 68 percent (support for the death penalty) is quite high," DiCamillo said. "There are relatively few issues where you get that kind of support."

Death penalty opponents see Williams as a godsend for their movement, having turned into an anti-gang advocate from behind bars. Many advocates feel he will be a rallying figure even if he is put to death.

"If the state actually executes a man who is a nonviolent voice, there could be some real anger out there," said Karen Jo Koonan, a senior trial consultant in Oakland for the National Jury Project.

Executing Williams, a man who has tried to rehabilitate himself, will tell at-risk young people "that the public really doesn't care about them," said the Rev. Sally Bystroff, a retired Presbyterian minister from Livermore and member of the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Commission. The longtime anti-death-penalty advocate spent a day last week visiting with girls in Alameda County's juvenile hall who had read Williams' anti-gang books for youths.

But serving a sentence on death row isn't about rehabilitation, said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. It's about punishment.

"What Stanley Tookie Williams has done over the past 12 years has not changed what he did over 26 years ago -- murdered four people," Barankin said.

Still, Barankin said he realizes that the spotlight on capital punishment won't dim regardless of what happens to Williams.

"To the extent that it sparks more debate, it's a good thing," he said. "How we apply the death penalty is something we should be thinking about all the time."

E-mail Joe Garofoli at
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