Series of Executions Sparks Debate in California

Rapper Snoop Dogg speaks during a rally at San Quentin for Stan “Tookie” Williams.
The high-profile execution of Stan “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the one of the states most notorious gangs, and a recent spike in scheduled executions has sparked a lively debate on the merits of the death penalty in California.

About two-thirds of Californians support the death penalty, according to polls, but recent events show that the pendulum could be starting to swing in another direction — toward abolishing capital punishment.

The state Assembly has scheduled a hearing in January for a bill that could stop executions in the state until January 2009 — a year after a special commission created to investigate potential flaws in the death penalty is scheduled to file its report. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration has also forced a philosophical shift and a major personnel shakeup in the state’s prison system. Last summer he added “rehabilitation” to the title of the agency responsible for overseeing the prisons in California and appointed a new director.

Rehabilitation was the focus of the debate surrounding Williams’ execution, which took place Dec. 13 after months of protests that brought rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, Rev. Jesse Jackson and celebrity activist Bianca Jagger to the gates of San Quentin State Penitentiary. Williams was sentenced to die after he was convicted of killing four people on two occasions in 1979, crimes he claimed he did not commit. After remaining active in the Crips — a gang he co-founded in Los Angeles — for about 10 years at San Quentin, Williams repented of his criminal actions and wrote several books aimed at keeping children off the street. Williams’ supporters claimed the actions he took in the latter years of his life showed that he was redeemed, and he should be granted clemency so he could continue to help children while serving a life sentence.

Wheelchair-bound Clarence Ray Allen, 75, is scheduled to be the next California inmate to be sentenced to death. If his execution occurs on Jan. 17, he will be the oldest person executed in California since the death penalty was restored in 1977. The three-time murderer is legally blind and diabetic. Another convicted murderer, Michael Morales, is expected to be executed in February or March.

If both executions occur it will mark a significant increase in the rate of executions California. Only 11 inmates have been executed in the state in the last 13 years. There were no executions from 1977 to 1992.

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