The Last of Tookie

Stayed up much later than I should have last night to catch the press conference of the platoon of reporters and “reporters” who had witnessed the Tookie Williams execution. I started out listening on KCBS, the Bay Area’s “all news” AM radio outlet, but the way they broke in and out of the press conference for ads and traffic reports was absurd. So I went out and turned on CNN, which carried the whole conference live as part of its overnight (in the United States) national news show.

A couple of thorough writeups both of the execution — from Adam Housley of Fox News — and of the press conference — from a California blogger called Ordinary Everyday Christian — appeared much earlier today. I include Housley’s despite its term-report tone and his laughable statement during the press conference that he believed Williams was trying to intimidate the media contingent during the proceedings. (It was interesting to hear the San Quentin warden’s reaction when he was asked about this later: He dismissed the suggestion, saying something like, “If you’re not familiar with prison there are lots of things that are intimidating.”)

Just one note on the vaunted “we give both sides” neutrality our news establishment likes to pat itself on the back for: The coverage of the Williams execution was a great example of how firmly and absolutely the media assumes the judgments of officialdom represent all they need to know to be certain of the truth.

In the Williams case, a court found him guilty and he lost appeal after appeal on a variety of grounds; throughout, Williams maintained he was innocent (OK, as “The Shawshank Redemption” noted, the rarest man in prison is one who admits guilt). One of the big strikes against Williams — the biggest, if you read Schwarzenegger’s clemency decision — was that he showed no remorse for the killings for which he was convicted. Williams responded that he couldn’t express remorse for crimes he didn’t commit.

How did reporters resolve this paradox? Just the way the governor did, by observing that the case had been tried and litigated to a fare-thee-well and the question of guilt had been resolved. Stories would typically mention Williams’s claim of innocence; most would omit any discussion, however brief, of what the claim was based on. Stories would invariably mention that Williams hadn’t apologized for the murders; most would add statements from victims’ families, police or prosecutors that the failure to own up showed Williams’s “redemption” as an anti-gang crusader was phony. The net impression was that Williams was an unregenerate killer.

And you know, maybe he was. But I wouldn’t be convinced by the press accounts of the crimes that sent him to death row in the first place. For all the attention the case has gotten, I don’t recall any systematic effort to go back and look at how Williams was convicted, much less focus on aspects of the prosecution that would raise an issue on “Law & Order” if not in the real world. Just one example: The principal witness against Williams in the murder of 7-Eleven clerk Albert Owens was a career violent felon granted immunity to testify; he alone claimed to have witnessed the shooting; he later returned to his native Canada, killed a man during a robbery, then lied about it under oath before confessing.

That by itself proves nothing about Tookie Williams’s guilt or innocence. But it’s enough to shake my certainty about what I really know about a case that has been for the most part written, delivered, read, and received in the most cursory shorthand.

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