Death row inmate takes final plea to Schwarzenegger

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Lawyers for Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the Los Angeles gang leader and convicted murderer who has evolved into an ardent anti-gang campaigner, made a final push to spare him the death penalty in a closed-door clemency hearing before California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The case has become a cause célèbre from coast to coast, and is seen as a test case for the future of judicial executions in the United States. With less than five days to go before Mr Williams' date with death, opinion-makers have been lining up on one side of the issue or the other - arguing either that Mr Williams deserves to be rewarded for his rehabilitation or that his crimes are too heinous to warrant any mercy.

The 51-year-old prisoner, who co-founded the Crips gang in the early 1970s and terrorised large areas of south LA during his heyday, was convicted of four cold-blooded murders committed in 1979. He has always insisted he was innocent of those crimes - something his lawyers have been unable to demonstrate in many appeals hearings. Prosecutors, meanwhile, have argued that his lack of remorse is just one more reason why he deserves execution.

Yesterday's hearing, in the state capital of Sacramento, lasted just more than an hour and included representations from both sides. A small crowd of pro-clemency campaigners demonstrated outside throughout. His lawyers did not seek to argue the facts, but urged the Governor to look at his good works over the past decade from the confines of his cell at San Quentin prison - a series of children's books urging young people to stay away from gangs, and a protocol for peace that has given rise to truces in urban street wars everywhere from New Jersey to South Africa.

Mr Schwarzenegger may buck the US's tough-on-crime trend. He has a reputation as an independent-minded politician capable of springing surprises.