Just days from Stanley Tookie Williams' date with San Quentin's execution chamber, it seems that everybody has an opinion about whether the death row inmate and Crips co-founder should live or die.
But only one opinion matters right now - Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's.
The Republican governor has retreated behind closed doors this week to weigh Williams' bid for clemency, likely the condemned killer's last hope of avoiding a death sentence imposed by a Los Angeles jury more than two decades ago. Schwarzenegger will hear arguments for mercy from Williams' lawyers, as well as from prosecutors who want him put to death when the clock hits 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
Political and legal experts agree that the politics of the death penalty always stack the odds against a death row inmate seeking clemency, and that Williams faces an uphill fight with the politically weakened Schwarzenegger. But there also is broad agreement that Williams' mix of infamy and celebrity is testing Schwarzenegger's death penalty views in unprecedented fashion, and that the governor's record on criminal justice issues leaves the outcome uncertain.
"He's much more likely to grapple with the life and death issues," said Eric George a former deputy legal affairs secretary who worked on clemency cases for Governor Pete Wilson. "I really don't think he's going to look at it from a political standpoint."
A spokeswoman for the governor said it remains uncertain when he will decide Williams' fate. It is the third time Schwarzenegger has considered a clemency request from a death row inmate. He has rejected the other two, but neither of those involved a legendary gang leader and convicted killer of four whose story of death row redemption was turned into a movie and Nobel Peace Prize nominations.
San Mateo County murderer Donald Beardslee had quiet support from family and friends before he was executed earlier this year. Williams has rapper Snoop Dogg and actor Jamie Foxx - who portrayed the inmate in a movie - behind him. The NAACP organized four rallies around California on Tuesday, delivering thousands of signatures to the governor's desk to express support for clemency.
For the 51-year-old Williams, clemency rests primarily on the argument that his decade-long transformation from muscle-bound street thug to preacher against youth gangs warrants mercy. His children's books and messages to gang-torn neighborhoods have prompted widespread support from many activists and politicians. Even the federal appeals court that rejected his case in 2002 took the highly unusual step of citing his "good works and accomplishments," calling him a "worthy candidate" for clemency.
"What you have here is a pretty strong case for mercy in that Williams has a fairly plausible claim of redemption," said Dan Kobil, an Ohio law professor and clemency expert. "I think it squarely poses the question of whether he's ever going to use clemency in a broader way."
But Schwarzenegger will hear a very different argument from Los Angeles prosecutors. A jury convicted Williams of gunning down Albert Owens, a store clerk, for little more than US$100, and then shooting to death motel owners Thsai-Shai and Yen-I-Yang and their 43-year-old daughter, Yee Chen Lin, during a 1979 crime spree.
While Williams has always asserted his innocence, prosecutors stress that every state and federal court to consider his legal arguments has rejected them. To the family members of Williams' victims, there can't be redemption without an apology. And they are ready to see him become the 12th man executed in California since 1978.
"I will stand there in Albert's name and see justice be finished," Lora Owens, Albert Owens' stepmother, said Tuesday. "When the governor says `no' to clemency, you are going to see a vile man come out. You'll see the real Williams come out."
A California governor has not granted clemency since 1967. In recent years, with the exception of Illinois, governors generally have been reluctant to spend political capital on clemency. When it does happen, it has ordinarily been when there are doubts about innocence or evidence of mental illness. Williams' case revolves around death row conduct.
Schwarzenegger this year rejected the argument that Beardslee deserved credit for being a model prisoner, saying he expects "nothing less." But the governor already has demonstrated that he's far less worried about looking soft on crime than his predecessor, Gray Davis. Schwarzenegger has paroled 99 murderers since taking office in 2003; Davis only four such paroles in nearly five years.
Williams, meanwhile, has been telling gatherings that he is preparing for his final days, hopeful he'll be spared but resolute. In a previous interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Williams said he was prepared for his death.
"I don't want to die, but it's impossible to block it out entirely," he said.
Lora Owens is prepared for Williams' death, but not for clemency.
"I'm not looking at it that way," she said. "I guess I'm in denial the same way Williams is in denial that he'll be executed. One of us will be wrong."