Criminal justice in the US: The American way of death

Stanley 'Tookie' Williams was killed by lethal injection in California yesterday. His case highlights the controversy over state executions in the US, says Andrew Gumbel
Click to follow

Within the eerie confines of the death chamber at San Quentin prison, supporters of Stanley "Tookie" Williams whispered their final words of love and defiantly gave the Black Power salute.

Outside the prison gates, more than 2,000 people gathered to light candles, pray, sing and shed tears as the needles were inserted into the prisoner's arm and the most controversial inmate on California's death row had his life quietly and clinically snuffed out.

The one-time leader of the Crips street gang and convicted murderer, who evolved into an ardent anti-gang activist during his 24 years on death row, was executed just past midnight on Monday night after the denial of his last appeals lodged with the courts and with California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the end, nothing could stop the slow march of California's bureaucracy of death - not the weeks of spirited campaigning led by Hollywood celebrities and inner-city activists, not the outpouring of international support, not the widely expressed sense that if Williams were not regarded as an embodiment of rehabilitation and redemption then the terms had no meaning in the US criminal justice system.

"The state of California just killed an innocent man!" three of his supporters shouted in unison inside the death chamber as the execution was completed. The stepmother of one of the murder victims - a convenience-store clerk blasted by a sawn-off shotgun during a robbery in south Los Angeles in 1979 - turned stony-faced and burst into tears, according to media witnesses inside the room.

It took a gruelling 23 minutes for prison officials to insert the needles in Williams' muscular arms, prompting the prisoner to wince in frustration, and another 13 minutes before he was pronounced dead. He lifted his head to look at the five friends and supporters in the room before losing consciousness.

Just 12 hours before, Mr Schwarzenegger issued astatement to deny Williams clemency, arguing that his crimes were too heinous to merit a commutation of his sentence, and questioning whether his prison-house reformation was genuine.

The governor had indicated he found the decision agonising, but politically speaking it was straightforward: he is in deep trouble in opinion polls and has already alienated his Republican base by appointing a Democrat as his chief-of-staff. Sparing Williams' life would almost certainly have triggered a full-scale revolt against him by his own party.

And so the execution went ahead, with many Californians quietly applauding the decision to end the life of a cold-blooded killer - Williams has acknowledged doing terrible things, although he maintained he was innocent of the four murders for which he was convicted - even as others expressed outrage and sorrow.

The Vatican and several European officials made statements of opposition. In Mr Schwarzenegger's home town of Graz, Austria, the Green Party said their native son deserved to be stripped of his Austrian nationality.

Even in the United States, there were signs that Williams' death would prompt continuing debate about the appropriateness of the death penalty. The California legislature is due to debate a moratorium as early as next month pending a two-year official inquiry into the safety of capital convictions.

Kenny Richey: On death row in Ohio for 20 years

Earlier this year, Kenny Richey believed he would finally be granted an opportunity to clear his name. Having spent 20 years on death row, an appeals court ruled the British-born prisoner had not received a fair trial. It said he should be released or given a new trial.

But last month the US Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had erred and ordered it to re-examine its judgment. The decision means that Richey, 41, could return to death row in Ohio rather than receiving a new trial.

Richey, born in Scotland, has always insisted that he faces the death penalty for a crime he did not commit. He was charged and convicted over the death of two-year-old Cynthia Collins in a fire in the town of Columbus Grove, Ohio, in 1986, allegedly started by Richey to punish the girl's mother, his former girlfriend.

Richey's campaign has received support from figures ranging from the late Pope John Paul II to 150 MPs, who signed a motion supporting his claim that he was not responsible for the child's death. The campaign appeared to have made a breakthrough when the appeals court threw out his order for execution, having found he received incompetent legal help in his trial and that the prosecution case lacked proof.

The court even found there was evidence Richey had risked his life to try to save the child. In a rare telephone interview this year from the Mansfield Correctional Institute, Richey told The Independent on Sunday: "What I've missed the most is to be able to walk up to my front door and go anywhere I've wanted, to go shopping," he said.

"Just the basic things. I just want to get home to Scotland and be with my [fiancée]."

A British lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, who spent almost two decades defending death-sentence cases in the US, said: "Support from the British Government for Kenny is crucial now that his case is in the Supreme Court, if his rights are to be honoured."

John Nixon: On death row for 19 years in Mississippi

Unless his execution is halted by some last-minute intervention, John Nixon will today become the oldest person executed in the US for more than 50 years.

Nixon, 77, was convicted in 1986 of the contract killing of Virginia Tucker in Mississippi. Nixon's current lawyers, while not disputing his guilt, have claimed he did not receive a fair trial and that his lawyers at the time were "overworked and overwhelmed" during the hearing.

As a result, they argue, the court did not hear mitigating evidence that might have counted against a death penalty. They also say that disputed evidence about a previous offence - a statutory rape - should not have been presented to the court.

While Mississippi has not executed a prisoner since 2002, the state's governor, Haley Barbour, says he will not grant clemency. "The real tragedy is that justice in this case has been delayed for more than 20 years," he said earlier this week.

Nixon was hired to carry out the killing by Mrs Tucker's ex-husband, Elster Ponthieux, who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the plot.

Nixon was assisted by his two sons and another man, who received lighter sentences. As the scheduled date for execution has approached, an appeal has been sent to the US Supreme Court.

Emergency appeals for Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana are routinely heard by Justice Antonin Scalia. Some in Mississippi believe that Nixon's life should be spared. State Representative Erik Fleming told the Clarion-Ledger newspaper that while the murder of Mrs Tucker "was heinous, it is even more heinous for this state to continue the practice of execution in the name of justice".

Others claim that the execution will bring justice. One of Mrs Tucker's three children, Joey Ponthieux, told a local television station: "The depth of sorrow and loss that I and my family feel from my beloved mother's absence cannot be adequately put into words."

Michael Ross: Executed in may 2005 in Connecticut

Until May of this year, no one had been executed in New England for 45 years.

That changed when Connecticut put to death a serial killer who had campaigned for his sentence to be carried out.

Michael Ross, 45, fought off attempts by lawyers and anti-death penalty advocates to stop his execution by lethal injection.

Ross was convicted of the murder of four young women in Connecticut during the 1980s. He confessed to four other murders and said he had raped most of the victims.

Shortly before his execution, a federal appeals court and the US Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit brought on behalf of Ross's father that claimed the execution would lead to a wave of suicide attempts among Connecticut inmates.

The courts also rejected an attempt by Ross's sister to intervene. Ross said last year that his victims' families had suffered enough. "I owe these people. I killed their daughters. If I could stop the pain, I have to do that. This is my right," the Cornell University graduate said. "I don't think there's anything crazy or incompetent about that."

His view appeared to be borne out by those relatives. Prior to Ross's execution, Edwin Shelley, whose 14-year-old daughter Leslie was the serial killer's seventh victim, said he planned to watch the execution. "It's going to be nice to come home and realise that the case is finished and that he has received his just rewards," he said. "I think I will be very relaxed and at ease with myself."

Ross's execution was the first since 1960 in the traditionally moderate northeastern US states known collectively as New England - Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. On the day of the execution, the state's governor, Jodi Rell, said: "Today is a day no one truly looked forward to, but then no one looked forward to the brutal, heinous deaths of those eight young girls. I hope that there is at least some measure of relief and closure for their families."

A history of hangings, firing squads and electric chairs

1608

Captain George Kendall, convicted of spying, is subject of first recorded execution in America. Other crimes punishable by death include stealing grapes and killing chickens.

1636

The first death penalty statutes are recorded, for offences such as idolatry and witchcraft.

1890

William Kemmler becomes the first person to sit in the electric chair, in New York.

Early 1900s

A new "progressive period" of reform leads to abolition of death penalty in nine states. But executions reached an all-time peak in the 1930s, averaging 167 per year.

1950s

As countries in Europe abolish capital punishment, many in the US begin to question its morality and legality. The number of executions drops.

1960s

Support for executions falls to all-time low in 1966. In 1967, executions virtually cease.

1976

In Furman v Georgia, US Supreme Court rules that the arbitrary application of the death penalty is unconstitutional but the following week the court reverses its decision. This allows the wave of executions still rolling today.

1977

In January in Utah, Gary Gilmore, convicted of murder, is executed by firing squad, America's first execution after a 10-year moratorium.

1982

Charles Brooks becomes first person to be executed by lethal injection.

1994

President Clinton signs a bill making dozens of federal crimes punishable by death. In 2001, the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh becomes the first federal prisoner to be executed.

1999

Pope John Paul II visits Missouri and calls for abolition. A UN Human Rights Commission resolution calls for a worldwide moratorium.

June 2004

New York declares death penalty unconstitutional. Number of executions begins to fall.

2 December 2005

Kenneth Boyd is 1,000th executed since 1976.

13 December 2005

Stanley 'Tookie' Williams executed.

Today

John Nixon, 77, set to be 60th execution this year.

Simon Usborne

Comments