Friday, October 27, 2006

Barbara Becnel on the Death Penalty and Why She Left the Democratic Party

Death penalty opponent Barbara Becnel explains...
Why I left the Democratic Party

October 27, 2006 | Page 8

BARBARA BECNEL is a journalist who was an advocate for and co-author with Stan Tookie Williams, the former gang leader-turned-peacemaker put to death by the state of California on December 13, 2005.

After leading a struggle to save Stan that involved thousands of people--and touched many more--around the country, Becnel ran for governor of California in the Democratic primary. Based on her experience with a party machine that tried to ignore the political issues she raised in her campaign, Becnel left the Democrats after the primary, and is supporting the Green Party campaign of Peter Camejo for California governor.

Here, Becnel explains to Socialist Worker why she left the Democratic Party.
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THE DEMOCRATIC Party disappointed me mightily on a number of fronts, regarding Stan and also regarding my own run for governor of the state of California in the Democratic primary.
Early on, I had an opportunity to directly talk to the person who since won the Democratic primary--Phil Angelides. I asked him in a public setting in front of about 300 people what his position was on the death penalty, and he sounded no different in his answer than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He stated on the record that he supported the death penalty--end of story. So there’s no reason for me to believe that he would have done anything differently than Schwarzenegger.

He said that he supported the death penalty because the people of the state of California support the death penalty--so what he was essentially saying is that the polls say people want it, so I want it.

There are all kinds of implications in that. If the people of the state of California supported slavery, would he support slavery? All laws aren’t correct laws, and all laws aren’t moral laws, and the people aren’t always right. So leadership means to fight for what’s right, and educate people and bring them along.

Now Angelides is just one particular individual in the Democratic Party, though a significant one since he’s now running against Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the California legislature, both the state assembly and the state senate, is majority Democrat. It’s run by the Democratic Party.

There’s a major player in the Democratic Party--a Latina state senator named Gloria Romero. I got her to go visit Stan. She spent two or two-and-a-half hours with him, and she said that it changed her life. She promised Stan that she would talk to the members of the Democratic majority to get their support, and send a letter to Arnold Schwarzenegger asking for clemency.

There are 73 Democrats total in the state senate and state assembly, and she was only able to get a total of nine Democrats to sign.

They were cowards. Some of these Democrats are against the death penalty, but they didn’t have the courage to go public and support Stan. So that was another indication of the weakness of the Democratic Party--certainly in the state of California, but it’s true nationally.

My next experience with the Democratic Party and its unworthiness to represent the majority of the Black vote or Latino vote or working-class vote is when I ran. A second-class citizen would have been treated better than I was treated.

I was making history. It turns out that I was the first Black woman to ever run for governor in the Democratic Party in the state of California. You’d think they could have at least taken some pride in that. Instead, I was treated as if--I’ll paraphrase Ralph Ellison’s book The Invisible Man-- I was the invisible woman.

I likened my situation to a 21st-century version of Fannie Lou Hamer’s experience with the Democratic Party in the mid-1960s, when her delegation from Mississippi wasn’t permitted to be seated at the Democratic national convention in 1964--because the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party said they would walk out.

The reason I compare my situation to that is that when the state Democratic Party had their state convention at the end of April, I was invited to speak. The progressive caucus of the Democratic Party sent me an e-mail and invited me to speak, and the day before I was to speak, I got a phone call that, with a lot of hemming and hawing, essentially uninvited me. I was offered instead the so-called opportunity to man the information table of the progressive Democratic caucus for 30 minutes.

What it really came down to is that the Dixiecrats, who discriminated in 1964 based on race, have become the Richiecrats, and now they’re discriminating on the basis of class and race. They just added another bias--it’s race and class bias now.

There are some good human beings in the Democratic Party. However, to succeed in their party, they have to allow themselves to be co-opted. What I witnessed is that for the most part, the decent human beings were simply not willing to give up their upwardly mobile political careers to challenge the Democratic Party.

To that end, even the decent human beings are allowing themselves to be co-opted by a party that has become pretty indistinguishable from the Republican Party.

We do not have a humane and peaceful way of killing prisoners

Barbara Becnel discusses the death of Crips founder

by Rick Claypool
October 25th 2006

Barbara Becnel was a friend and advocate of Stanley Tookie Williams, III. Williams, a co-founder of the well-known West Coast gang, the Crips, was sentenced to death in California for four murders in 1979. On December 13, 2005, Williams was executed. In the meantime, Williams co-authored 9 children’s books with Becnel and wrote his autobiography, "Blue Rage, Black Redemption" (2005), and was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature and a Nobel Peace Prize for his work to stop gang violence.

Becnel, the Executive Director of Neighborhood House, a non-profit organization, spoke with TCP about her involvement with Williams, his legacy and the death penalty.

TCP: How did you first become involved with the case of Stan Tookie Williams?

I was working on a book about the history of the Crips and the Bloods, so I wrote him asking for an interview. At that interview, he told me that he was not the same man who had arrived on death row in 1981. He said he had changed and that he wanted to change his legacy to that of steering kids away from gangs as opposed to having been the co-founder of the Crips. He wanted to do that by writing books. So that got me started with him. That was in 1993.

TCP: Describe for me, in your own words, what makes his case special?

He had told me from the beginning that he was innocent. I didn’t assume that was true. I just kept working with him. The conclusion I came to in terms of whether I should move forward to work with him was, if he was sincere about wanting to turn kids away from gangs and violence, then that was valuable independently of whether he was innocent or not.

Stan demonstrated over and over again that he was a man of integrity who didn’t lie. Then it occurred to me after a couple years of working with him on these anti-gang, anti-violence youth projects, that if he wasn’t lying about any of that, then why should I assume he’s lying about his case?

So I began to read the transcripts and the many, many boxes, over 70 at the time, of legal material associated with his case. It was pretty amazing, because it was obvious there had been some corruption on the part of law enforcement on obtaining his conviction. It just seemed so obvious, it was befuddling to me how he could be convicted and on death row based on such weak and contrived evidence.

TCP: For example?

Let me give you a few things that caused my eyebrows to hit my hairline. First of all, he was convicted based on 5 witnesses. Of these witnesses, four were people who said he volunteered a confession to them. One of the five was in fact the original suspect who admitted he was there and involved with the crime and who was the first person arrested. This guy traded not one day in jail, let alone prison, for saying that Stan was with him and that Stan did it. That was the circumstantial evidence.

The one piece of physical evidence that they used at the trial was the ballistics evidence. A ballistics expert said that at one of the crime scenes, not both, that one or two shells were found from a shotgun that had been registered to Stan 5 years earlier. The shotgun was not in his possession – it was in the possession of one of the witnesses to whom Stan had supposedly volunteered his confession.

The ballistics report shows that the ballistics expert tested this shotgun. They tested the shotgun, came back and said the bullet that was found at the crime scene did not indicate that the shotgun that was registered to Stan had shot the bullet that was found at the crime scene.

A couple weeks pass, and the report has an addendum. The DA came back to the ballistics expert and said that what he’d found was unacceptable, so he told him try again. So he goes back, and the addendum says he shot the gun 16 times. After 16 times, he got two shells that were "similar" to the one shell that was found at the crime scene. That’s in the written record.

When he testifies, he says that the shells were exactly the same. That’s not what he wrote. That was the physical evidence against Stan.

The physical evidence that was suppressed against Stan that didn’t come out until 13 or 14 years into his appellate process, there were fingerprints at both crime scenes. None of them were Stan’s. At one of the crime scenes, the murderer stepped in the victim’s blood and left a bloody boot print. That boot print wasn’t Stan’s. Lastly, one of the crime scenes was a motel. Apparently the murderer pretended like he was going to rent a motel room because he started filling out a motel guest card. So we actually have the hand writing of the murderer. It’s not Stan’s. All this stuff got repressed. And I’m only telling you some of the issues. It seemed pretty amazing that Stan was even convicted, let alone put on death row.

TCP: Then why do you think he was convicted and on death row?

The particular DA who got Stan’s case had a history of targeting low income black or Latino males to prosecute. Therefore, if there were five murder cases to be tried and two were by white guys, two were by black guys, and one by a Latino, he made sure he got assigned to the black or Latino guys. He had a history of this.

The next thing that he would do, he would transfer the trial from the downtown LA court, which has a very diverse ethnic pool of jurors, to the virtually all white blue-collar LA suburb of Torrance, California. And the City of Torrance is notoriously known for its racism.

Once he got them into the Torrance court, he would then kick all of the blacks or Latinos off the jury. The proof of this is, in two trials, one trial before Stan’s and one after Stan’s, he was challenged and taken all the way to the Ca. State Supreme Court, and they found in favor of the death row inmate.

TCP: But why wasn’t this ruling used to help Stan?

Stan’s attorney wasn’t good. He didn’t object, didn’t challenge. He was later kicked off the LA County Death Penalty Panel. That’s a panel of pre-qualified and approved lawyers who have experience handling capital cases.

Those are the key reasons why Stanley Tookie Williams was found guilty based on such flimsy evidence.

So as I looked into all this, I thought "Oh my God!" He’d been telling me for two or three years that he was innocent, and I’d been sort of hearing it and not hearing it. And then I finally did my research and thought, this man looks innocent. What it came down to was that he was the co-founder of the Crips, and they wanted him off the street. Any way they could do that, that was OK with them.

TCP: Why did he begin writing children’s books, his autobiography and other works that encouraged finding solutions to gang violence?

He always said there was no one thing that caused him to change overnight. He went through a process of rehabilitating himself and ultimately redeeming himself. He was thrown into solitary confinement in the late 1980s, and he wound up staying there for 6 and a half years, That became one of those important moments in life. My words for it would be "progress or perish." He had an opportunity there to look at himself and look at his life.

He was barely literate, so he started reading black history. At first it took him quite a while to read a book, because in almost every sentence there was word he didn’t know. And he would stop and open up the dictionary and look the word up and then keep gong. After reading a book about black history, he realized that all of these black people who had done extraordinary things had been ordinary people. It then occurred to him, he’s an ordinary person who could do something extraordinary in terms of making a contribution to humanity. He wanted to undo the creation of the Crips, to undo that destructive legacy. He decided to do that by writing books for kids with the core message, "do not join a gang."

He went from being barely literate to very literate. Here was this brilliant guy, born in Louisiana, raised in South Central. If he had been raised in Beverly Hills, he would be the head of some major corporation right now. He was a natural leader. He became the leader of what was available to him in South Central. He was just a brilliant man.

TCP: How has Tookie’s message of peace been received by gang members?

It’s been powerful. He had a web site, which we still have, prior to his death ( Hundreds of thousands of people sent him e-mails, young people saying, "I read your books." He ended up co-authoring 9 children’s books with me. Eight were for elementary school kids, the ninth for middle school kids, and then he wrote his autobiography for young adults and adults. It’s called "Blue Rage, Black Redemption." Those books are in schools and used in juvenile correction worldwide.

For the most part, his work and his life have been taken quite seriously. The day after his memorial service, a group of Crip leaders in LA who had attended the memorial service said, "The Governor [Schwarzenegger] wouldn’t give our homey clemency, but we have the power to give each other clemency by agreeing not to kill each other."

They formed a cease fire committee, and that now includes approximately 300 leaders of Crip factions in Southern California. It all started because they wanted to honor Stan’s peacemaker legacy.

TCP: What would you say to those who argue he wouldn’t have done this noble work were it not for his death sentence?

He was asked this, so I can tell you what his answer was. He said that the prison, and being on San Quentin’s death row, in no way contributed to his rehabilitation or redemption. San Quentin did everything it could in order to undermine his positive efforts. There is no program or anything that is offered to death row prisoners that supports rehabilitation. But growing older and having an opportunity to stop and look at himself, that did make a difference.

TCP: What, in your opinion, is the greatest myth about the death penalty?

That it’s not cruel and unusual punishment. Not just in the death chamber, but a death row prisoner’s life is about one of the worst lives that you can imagine. The system has already counted them as dead, so they don’t warrant treatment as human beings from the system as they get closer to execution. The medical care that they get is enough to keep them alive, because they don’t want them to die – the State wants to be able to kill them. You get a cavity, and you get a tooth pulled – you don’t get a filling. There’s no such thing as heat in the winter or a fan in the summer at San Quentin. It’s filthy. It’s rife with diseases. It’s an awful environment.

And then there’s what I saw. I saw Stan’s execution, and I saw him tortured and murdered, and it took them 35 minutes to do it. When I came out and spoke the truth about what I saw, I was called hysterical and minimized and diminished by the state attorney general’s office and law enforcement.

About two or three weeks ago, there was a federal hearing in San Jose, Ca. The same people who tried to diminish what I said, when they were under oath, had to admit that Stan’s execution was in fact bungled. Based on the rest of the testimony, he died a horrible, horrible death, paralyzed and unable to scream out or show us the excruciating pain. I think that’s the myth. We do not have a humane and peaceful way of killing prisoners. There is no such thing. I can testify to that. I was there, I saw it and it was the most horrific experience of my life. The death penalty is synonymous with cruel and unusual punishment.

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