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Misplaced sympathy for killers

(First of two parts)
STANLEY ''TOOKIE" Williams is scheduled to die by lethal injection in California's San Quentin prison next Tuesday. His death will occur nearly 27 years after he brutally murdered Albert Owens, a 7-Eleven clerk in Whittier, Calif., and three members of the Yang family -- Yen-I Yang, Tsai-Shai Yang, and their daughter, Yee-Chen Lin -- at the Brookhaven Motel in Los Angeles.

Unlike the peaceful, painless demise awaiting Williams, the deaths of his victims were horrific: He shot each of them at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun, shattering their bodies so that they died in agony. Their suffering amused him. ''You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him," Williams bragged after killing Albert Owens. According to the district attorney's summary of the evidence, ''Williams then made gurgling or growling noises and laughed hysterically about Owens's death."

As cofounder of the deadly Crips street gang in 1971, Williams's criminal legacy goes well beyond the four murders for which he was convicted. The gang violence he unleashed 34 years ago has destroyed thousands of lives and left countless other victims scarred by rape, assault, and armed robbery. Though he now claims to have reformed and has written books with an antigang message, he has never admitted his guilt or expressed any remorse for the slaughter of Albert Owens and the Yang family. If his supposed contrition amounts to anything more than lip service, he has yet to prove it. Williams adamantly refuses to be debriefed by police about the Crips and their operations or to provide any information that could help bring other killers to justice. In fact, officials at San Quentin have said he continues to orchestrate gang activity from behind bars.

Incredibly, this thug is the object of the left's latest craze. For many anti-death penalty fundamentalists, it is not enough to oppose the execution of a savage killer -- the killer must be extolled as a noble soul whose death would be a loss for humanity. Thus Hollywood has honored Williams with a made-for-TV movie. The media have weighed in with sympathetic stories. A slew of celebrities, including such moral giants as Tom Hayden and Snoop Dogg, are clamoring for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency and spare Williams's life. And all but forgotten amid this orgy of adulation are the victims Williams so cruelly murdered nearly three decades ago.

What is it that makes victims so easy to forget? When Kenneth Boyd was executed in North Carolina last week, it was reported everywhere that he was the 1,000th murderer to be put to death since the resumption of capital punishment in 1976. But how many stories devoted more than a passing mention to the two people Boyd sent to early graves -- his estranged wife, Julie Curry Boyd, and her father, Thomas Curry? Why doesn't the media's round-number fetish extend to the victims of homicide as well as the perpetrators? If the 1,000th execution made headlines, why didn't the 1,000th murder? Or the 10,000th? Or the 100,000th?

Actually there have been close to 600,000 homicides in the United States since 1976, and the total climbs by roughly 15,000 each year. Where is the uproar over those round numbers? Where are the protests, the petitions, the Hollywood rallies aimed at stopping those deaths? I understand that some people think capital punishment is wrong as a matter of principle. What I cannot understand is how anyone can be more outraged by the lawful execution each year of a few dozen murderers than by the annual slaughter of thousands of victims at the hands of such murderers.

Opponents of capital punishment make much of the theoretical possibility that an innocent defendant might be killed. What they never acknowledge is that the abolition of capital punishment guarantees that innocent victims will die. That isn't only because executing murderers has a powerful deterrent effect, as a number of recent studies confirm. It is also because prison bars can't keep some killers from killing again.

In its latest roundup of death penalty statistics, ''Capital Punishment, 2004," the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that at least 101 murderers now on death row were already in prison when they murdered their victims; at least 44 others were prison escapees. Lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key may sound appealing. But some murderers will always escape and murder again. Others will kill in prison.

Ultimately, the case for putting murderers like Williams and Boyd to death isn't just a practical one, strong though the practical arguments are. It is also a moral one. When the state executes a murderer, it is making a statement about the demands of justice and the sanctity of human life -- a statement as old as Genesis, and as essential as ever.

Next: The bishops and the death penalty.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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