(I have been writing short stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about journalism and life.)
His real first name was Stanley but they called him “Tookie”. Near the end of his life he was looking for redemption, but that would only come from God. Stanley “Tookie” Williams was executed at California’s San Quentin Prison in December of 2005. About one year earlier, I sat face-to-face with this gang killer on death row. It is a half hour of my life I will never forget.
There are two major gangs prowling the streets of Los Angeles, The Bloods and the Crips. “Tookie” Williams founded the Crips. They wear blue bandanas as their visible calling card. Their job is urban terrorism and organized crime. Williams was on death row for killing 4 people in 1979 during two robberies in the Los Angeles area. These were executions, according to the prosecutor. The victims were all shot at close range with a shotgun. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
I was working at KTNV in Las Vegas as the main evening anchor of Action News. I got a letter from a woman telling me there was a man on death row who was going to be killed by the state of California and that would be a huge loss in the fight against gangs. The woman was the so-called “friend” of Tookie Williams. She was promoting the book he had written in prison. It was a children’s book encouraging them to stay away from gangs.
I had seen gang life first hand in my decade and a half covering the streets of Los Angeles. If there was a way the man who founded the Crips could help kids avoid this violent life, it would be a great story. I pitched it and the news director agreed. We made plans to travel to northern California for a visit to San Quentin.
Arranging to interview someone on death row is a negotiation. First, you bargain to get the inmate or his lawyer. Then, you bargain with prison officials. Tookie Williams, through his “friend” said he would do the interview with me only if I would bring him something very special. He wanted a fresh vegetable sandwich on fresh white bread and a diet Coke. That was it. It seems on death row you don’t get fresh anything very often. It was his luxury and the prison officials said I could bring it in.
The warden refused to let us record the interview. I could not have a video camera or audio recorder. Just a still camera and a notebook and we were only allowed two photographs that would be taken by a guard. We had no choice but to agree.
I arrived at San Quentin on a day that is best described as gloomy. I don’t know if it was the weather or the feeling inside of me that I was going into a place that was infamous for crime, criminals and death. It was a feeling of sadness. I wasn’t afraid. I was “uncomfortable”. Prisons are designed to make you feel that way.
We were met in the prison lobby by our liaison. He gave us the rules. We would be led in. The interview would take place in a holding cell. We would sit across a metal table from the inmate. No touching, no handshakes, no contact. We had 30 minutes. Williams would have his hands and feet chained to the table. If the guard felt there was any violation of the rules, he would halt the interview immediately.
I had my brown bag carrying the Coke and the special vegetable sandwich. They searched it and gave it back to me with a dirty look. It was clear they really didn’t want to have to deal with this today. I later learned that guards always worry when prisoners are moved. It’s the most dangerous time. Tookie Williams, they said, was potentially dangerous. They still felt he was running the Crips from death row.
I was put in a tiny cell, six feet by six feet. The floor was concrete and the walls were steel mesh. The metal table was cold. Then, I heard him coming. A door slammed at the other end of the hall and the sound of the chains were unmistakable. And then, there he was. His eyes were glued to mine through the metal mesh as the guard fumbled with the keys to unlock the cage. Tookie Williams was a big man with a salt and pepper beard. The door opened and he shuffled in wearing his prison slippers. He never took his eyes off me.
The guard locked his chains onto a metal loop in the floor and then asked for my camera. He said he would take the pictures when the interview was over. The door slammed shut. I was sitting about two feet from a man convicted of killing four people. A man who in one month would be dead himself, as punishment.
I said hello. He said, “Is that my sandwich?”. I pushed the bag toward him. As he opened it he said, “Let me eat first. We don’t get this kind of food here”. I didn’t say anything for about five minutes while he quietly chewed and sipped the Coke. Finally, he said, “So what do you want from me?”.
I asked him about his book and why a man convicted of multiple murders and a founder of street gang would now be working to stop violence.
I remember his eyes. I always believed I could see truth in people’s eyes. Williams’s eyes were cold, as if I were looking at a window shade hiding what was inside. He said all the right things. He said he was innocent. He said he had learned that violence was not the right lifestyle. He said he regretted his gang life. He said prison taught him a new way.
He said it would be a shame to put him to death because he had so much to give and was ready to help to help solve the gang problem in American cities. He was pleading for his life. But, he was doing it with those cold eyes and not much emotion. It was, as if, he didn’t really believe his own words. I don’t know if he was telling the truth about what was in his heart. Reporters don’t know that, they only know what they see and hear and feel.
The interview ended. We could not shake hands. He thanked me for the sandwich. I said thanks for the time. The guard took two pictures of me and Tookie sitting in the cage. He never smiled. He and those chains shuffled back to death row.
I remember the deep breath I took when I walked out of San Quentin. I had never “felt” evil before.