LOS ANGELES – Jamie Foxx stepped into the spotlight at his latest movie premiere with more than the usual publicity drill in mind.
Don’t let it happen, the actor urged – don’t let the state of California execute Stanley Tookie Williams, the convicted murderer and Crips gang co-founder who has been recast behind bars in the role of peacemaker.
Foxx is not alone. An unusually varied collection of Hollywood stars and other famous names is trying to persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that Williams – who has become a celebrity in his own right – can do more for society alive than dead.
Williams’ supporters range from the holy (Archbishop Desmond Tutu) to the street-wise (rapper Snoop Dogg, himself once a Crip).
Whether a movie star governor is more inclined to consider their pleas for clemency is debatable. But the chorus is only growing louder as Williams’ Dec. 13 execution by lethal injection approaches.
His supporters cite Williams’ efforts to curb youth gang violence, including nine children’s books and an online project linking teenagers in America and abroad. A Swiss legislator, college professors and others repeatedly have submitted his name for Nobel peace and literature prizes.
Last weekend, Snoop Dogg told about 1,000 people rallying outside San Quentin State Prison that Williams’ activism has touched him.
“His voice needs to be heard,” said the musician, whose new song, “Real Soon,” touts Williams’ anti-gang efforts.
On Monday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bianca Jagger, a death penalty opponent and former wife of rocker Mick Jagger, visited San Quentin. Jackson said he prayed with Williams, promising, ” ‘We are going to fight for you, and we are going to win.”
Foxx, who played Williams in “Redemption,” a 2004 movie that brought the death row inmate’s story to a wider audience, used the New York premiere of “Jarhead” to issue his plea.
In a jailhouse interview last week, Williams said he was unimpressed by his prominent supporters (“I’m blase about everything”) and relies on his attorneys to evaluate the benefit of efforts on his behalf.
Hollywood’s political and social activism has been known to provoke criticism. But Williams said he is unconcerned his famous boosters could create a backlash that could sway Schwarzenegger against him.
“In the position I’m in, I don’t see how anybody can hurt,” he said. “The truth is the truth, no matter where it comes from.”
Williams, 51, who saw the notorious gang he co-founded with a childhood friend spawn copycats worldwide, denies committing the 1979 murders that put him on death row. He was convicted of killing a convenience store worker and, days later, killing two motel owners and their daughter during a robbery.
The crimes Williams was accused of were “heinous,” said former “M-A-S-H” star Mike Farrell, a longtime death penalty opponent. But Williams has made “an extraordinary transformation,” said Farrell, who has lobbied for him for several years.
In apparent recognition of the power of the pro-Williams movement, the California Department of Corrections launched an unusual counterattack questioning the sincerity of his anti-gang conversion and alleging that he remains involved with the Crips.
Lora Owens, stepmother of victim Albert Owens, opposes clemency and resents the celebrity involvement.
“I think most of them are abusing their popularity and their access to the media,” she said. “It’s an agenda. If they looked at the facts, then they’d realize Williams has not done anything to deserve clemency.”
Williams’ link to the entertainment world was cemented with the biographical movie shown on TV and at film festivals, including Robert Redford’s Sundance. Several of those involved in “Redemption,” including Foxx and co-star Lynn Whitfield, have become backers.
“If Stan Tookie Williams had been born in Connecticut in the same type of situation, and was a white man, he would have been running a company,” Foxx said when the film aired last year on FX. “But, born a black man who has the capability of having brute strength and the capability of being smart in the ways of the world, he’s going to get into what he gets into.”
Williams’ support is particularly deep among blacks but extends much further, said Farrell. Working with Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Farrell gathered signatures from more than 100 religious leaders, lawmakers and others of prominence for a clemency request that went to the governor Monday. Among those whose names are attached: NAACP Chairman Julian Bond; U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Harry Belafonte; Bonnie Raitt; and Russell Crowe.
Is there reason to think that Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood ties might make him more receptive to celebrity pleas?
“No,” Farrell said. “One would hope that because he comes out of an industry beyond the political world that he’s less subject to the pressures of politics but, unfortunately, his career hasn’t demonstrated that.”
So far, Schwarzenegger hasn’t said much about the execution, other than that he views it as a complex subject. “It’s never a fun thing to do. You’re dealing with someone’s life,” he said.
Williams’ lawyers have requested a meeting with Schwarzenegger, but haven’t gotten a commitment.
The famous have long rallied to high-profile prisoners, including American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, convicted of killing two FBI agents, and Jack Henry Abbott, whose jailhouse letters to novelist Norman Mailer were published as “In the Belly of the Beast.”
Abbott’s release, which Mailer supported largely because of the convict’s writing talent, ended tragically when he fatally stabbed a young man six weeks after being released. Back in prison, Abbott committed suicide.
Such celebrity campaigns rankle victim advocates. Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children, argues that they glamorize a man like Williams and confer unwarranted role-model status.
“He becomes someone to look up to,” Ruhe said. “There are so many people in our country you can look up to, but most certainly it should not be someone who has murdered several people.”