The taking of Tookie
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Tookie Williams departed the Earth in a long, anesthetic snooze. He continued to deny the four murders for which he was quietly extinguished by lethal injection inside the air-tight chamber where predecessors once gasped for oxygen and got only cyanide gas.
If anything remained to be learned from the object lesson of Mr. Williams' execution, it had to be sought in the assertive pre-game coverage on the cable channels. Panelists, the usual admixture of lawyers, advocates and the requisite family members of victims proved again that we have nothing new to say about capital punishment. It is either right or wrong, and only the volume of the arguments seems to vary.
What we do know is that an execution is a wonderful backdrop for big talk and ersatz suspense.
On CNN, Nancy Grace, self-appointed advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves, be it because they are dead or because she is talking over them, fretted about whether the execution would come off as scheduled. Five times she invoked the specter of a Supreme Court "rogue justice" issuing a stay. She told one panelist such a stay might come from "the kooky 9th circuit" and "boom, it's all off."
After arguing with Mr. Williams' trial lawyer -- "He keeps claiming he's innocent now, but he didn't have the guts to take the stand and be cross-examined at trial, did he?" -- Ms. Grace interviewed David Wohl, a defense lawyer and television commentator who would witness the execution. He explained his motive for doing so:
"You know, Nancy, it was offered to me. It was made available. I think it's a very rare event. I think it's an event that our viewers deserve to get a firsthand report on. It's probably the highest profile execution, arguably, since Gary Gilmore in 1977. And it's just something I simply couldn't pass up, as a member of the media and a lawyer, Nancy." In other words, Mr. Wohl was motivated by the same sense of the moment that attracts philistines to an opera or might induce Paris Hilton to buy a Picasso. Mr. Williams, for his own part, asked family not to attend the execution, thinking they might find it unpleasant.
On "Larry King Live," viewers were treated to the sight of radio talk show host Dennis Prager and actor Mike Farrell expressing their mutual disgust for each other. Let's listen in:
Farrell: "You sit there and lick your lips about the death of a human being. You disgust me."
Prager: "You disgust me, so it's mutual."
Farrell: "Thank you, sir."
As celebrities were edifying America, agents of the state of California were inside the prison following a ritual so rigidly charted someone could have thrown incense into the room, invoked the name of a pagan god and hoped for better crops when all was done.
Mr. Williams would be laid on a table and strapped down, a trio of chemicals fed into the vein it took a prison nurse 12 minutes to find amid the fat and muscle. He died in the small hours of Tuesday, Dec. 13, the Feast Day of St. Lucy. The Gospel reading for that day's Mass was Matthew 21:28-32, the Parable of the Two Sons.
Jesus told of a father who ordered his sons to work the vineyard. One refused, repented, and went. The other promised to go and never bothered. Which of these, Jesus asked the elders, did the will of his father?
The lesson was obvious in theory and the elders got it right without even noticing they were playing the role of the second son.
"Truly I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him."
In the long run, the difference between Tookie Williams and the commentators who saw him off on a night of ratings madness is that Tookie Williams died first.
A monster in deed was chanted to his doom by monsters in word.
His sincerity was no less convincing than that of the talking heads I sometimes suspect of loving their voices more than their thoughts.
Perhaps their words are sincere and their beliefs solid enough that, when they get to heaven, it will not alarm them if the first face they see is a long-forgiven man called Tookie.
First Published December 18, 2005 12:00 am