Cory Maye, Tookie Williams and the Death Penalty

There’s quite a bit of thoughtful discussion–as opposed to knee jerk reactions–out there on the execution last night of Crips founder “Tookie” Williams.

Conservative Ed Morrissey explains why he’s opposed to capital punishment even in case like Williams’ but publishes an interesting letter from a prosecutor explaining why the added deterrent is needed. A snippet:

Suppose we have a career criminal with a long record of violent felonies, what we in California would call a “three-striker”, who knows that he will be sent to prison for the rest of his life if he is ever caught committing a new offense. When he goes to rob the local convenience store, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone – he just wants the money. But he also knows that, as there is no death penalty, he will face the exact same punishment (life imprisonment) whether or not he kills the clerk, the only witness to his crime. He would be a fool not to do so. If he happens to bump into a police officer on the way out, he may as well kill him too – there is no extra charge, so to speak.

If we somehow manage to catch the “three-striker” and place him on trial, it will be in his best interest to sabatoge his own trial by killling witnesses, jurors, prosecutors or judges. After all, if we can’t convict him, he goes free. (Remember that scene from the movie Traffic, where the druglord walks?) And even if we manage to successfully prosecute him for one of these new murders, he will still only face the same life sentence that he was sure to get in the first place.

If we do manage to put a murderer like Tookie away for life, he can then kill anyone he wants to – inside or out of prison – with complete impunity. What are we going to do to him – give him two life terms?

Jeralyn Merritt argues that the evidence against Williams was tainted by jailhouse confessions and believes mercy was in order.

Kevin Drum disagrees, noting,

I’m not opposed to the death penalty qua death penalty, but I long ago became convinced that it was impossible to administer fairly or reliably and thus should be abandoned. At the same time, if anyone does deserve the death penalty, Tookie Williams is surely it. Regardless of what he’s done since, the man was a gangster and a thug and hardly deserving of our sympathy.

John Cole writes,

I have a lot of reasons why I dislike and oppose the death penalty, and not one of them has to do with a concern for the fate of guilty men. I dislike the death penalty because it is irreversible, it is arbitrary, it is seemingly enforced in a haphazard manner, it seems to be more about race and class than guilt, it does not seem to prevent crime, and because I see no need to have a system that could kill one innocent man when we could keep them all imprisoned and avoid that risk.

Don Sensing, a conservative minister, explains why he opposes capital punishment even though he seldom has much sympathy for the condemned. Ultimately, he believes that, while most of those on death row “may well deserve to die, not one of us deserves to kill him.”

Duncan “Atrios” Black writes, “I’m against [capital punishment] for numerous reasons (depending on when you ask me a different reason is the most important one), but I really can’t quite see how Stanley Williams is really the poster child for the cause.”

Meanwhile, Radley Balko does some extensive reporting on the case of Cory Maye, a death row inmate whose circumstances are much more worthy of concern than Williams’ owing to some rather questionable practices on the part of the police and prosecutors. Kieran Healy points us to all eight of Balko’s posts on the case (so far) and summarizes it thusly:

The guts of it is that Cory Maye is a black man on death row for shooting a white police officer dead. The officer was part of a paramilitary no-knock drug raid which broke down the door of Maye’s apartment in the middle of the night, when he and his young daughter were sleeping. Apparently the officers thought they were entering the house of a suspected drug dealer, when in fact the building was a duplex and the individual named in the warrant lived on the other side. Maye woke up, took his gun and shot Jones, who later died. Mayes was tried, apparently was not well-represented, and was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Jim Henley sees some striking similarities between the Maye case and the war on terror. Drum notes, though, that some folks with agendas (not Balko or Henley) are twisting the facts of the case for their own agendas.

I find the arguments made by Morrison’s correspondent persuasive, although I share many of the qualms expressed by John Cole about capital punishment in general. There’s little evidence that we’re executing innocent men but there’s little doubt that murderers from more affluent circumstances are less likely to be put to death than their destitute counterparts; of course, that’s true about the criminal justice system in general, down to minor traffic offenses.

Like most issues, I prefer to see this one evolve through the electoral process rather than the courts. Capital punishment is rather obviously allowed by the Constitution. It still has overwhelming public support, as seen in poll after poll and election after election. Those same polls, though, show a growing concern about the way the system works. It may well be that, twenty years or so from now, a majority will oppose state sanctioned executions.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kent says:

    It may well be that, twenty years or so from now, a majority will oppose state sanctioned executions.

    It may also be that, twenty years from now, executions will be applied more evenly and on the basis of more solid proof.

    But only if our luck changes.