Commentary: While 39 Witnesses and the World Stood Watch By MATT WERNER

Friday December 23, 2005

Driving back to the East Bay from San Quentin Prison at 1:30 a.m., I feel nauseated. I just spent the last five hours with 2,500 people participating in a peaceful vigil for Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The steel slits of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge animate the image of the dark San Francisco Bay below like a zoetrope. One of the seventeen media witnesses to the execution is on the radio. He talks about how the first needle easily slid into Tookie’s arm, but how the second needle took over ten minutes to lodge properly in Tookie’s other arm. The reporter meticulously recounts Tookie’s protracted last minutes: a female voice shouted the death warrant, translucent chemicals pumped into Tookie’s veins, his head arched up, his fist in Black Power, his head down, his repose. 

I grimace, remembering the speaker at the protest outside the prison gates saying at midnight that sometimes lethal injections take fifteen, even twenty minutes to kill, and that we should all be calm and prayerful during that time. The reporter on the radio continues detailing the execution: the motionless people around him, the thickness of the glass that separated the execution chamber from the 39 execution witnesses. How it all resembled a normal medical procedure. I can’t listen any longer. 

Last month, I viewed miniature models of state-sponsored execution chambers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. My stomach is now revolting as it had then; I open my car window for air. 

The reporter’s comparison of the execution to a medical procedure reminds me of how Americans are anesthesitized to violence today. Our society focuses on the meaningless details: how many cc’s of heart-attack-inducing drugs were pumped into Tookie, how many minutes he took to die, the ages of his victims, where he shot them, etc. 

We must instead take a wider viewpoint and look at crimes and acts of violence within their larger context. More-productive questions to ask are: Why is this violence occurring? What’s its origin, and how can we stop it? For, as Gandhi says, violence only begets more violence. It is hypocritical of California to lend itself to the evil it condemns: murder. Capital punishment is antithetical to the goal of reducing violence, in that it only creates more violence. 

A heavy burden weighs upon my conscience knowing that a small percentage of my tax dollars went to buy the needle to kill a five-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. I detest the manifestly odious acts carried out in my name, with my money, by the capital punishment system, in the war in Iraq, by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, and in the secret CIA prisons overseas reported in the Washington Post for which Vice President Dick Cheney is lobbying to legalize torture.  

I do not like the culture of violence in the United States where still a majority is for state-sponsored murder. Not until violence is delegitimized like slavery, will the United States live in peace. The system of capital punishment risks killing the innocent. As Surviving Justice, the recently published book I helped edit, points out: since the 1976 reintroduction of capital punishment, 120 inmates on death row nationwide have been exonerated. These exonerations, many based on DNA evidence, expose the most Kafkaesque of horrors—the risk of wrongful execution. To prevent this, California lawmakers will decide on Jan. 10, the fate of 647 death row inmates with Assembly Bill 1121, whether or not to impose a moratorium on the death penalty. 

I share much compassion for all those affected by violence—the victims, perpetrators, lawmakers, and people of California. I know that abolishing the death penalty will be one more step toward stopping the cycle of violence as Tookie tried to do with his redemptive 180 degree turn away from gang violence and toward youth outreach. Let us hope that Tookie’s is the final death our tax dollars support. 


Matt Werner is a senior at UC Berkeley. He helped edit Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, recently published by McSweeney’s.