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Governor to Hear Clemency Plea for Tookie Williams

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says he dreads having to decide whether ex-gang leader Stanley "Tookie" Williams lives or dies. Williams is a convicted murderer and co-founder of the Crips. He'll be executed next Tuesday unless Schwarzenegger intervenes. Tomorrow, the governor holds a closed-door meeting to consider Williams' request for clemency. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, Schwarzenegger will bear the political consequences of his decision no matter what it is.

INA JAFFE reporting:

Arnold Schwarzenegger has previously denied clemency to two convicted killers, but unlike Stanley "Tookie" Williams, they hadn't written anti-gang books for children or had Oscar-winning actors portray them in movies about their change of heart or been nominated by their supporters for the Nobel Peace Prize. Schwarzenegger was able to make his decisions in those cases without the benefit of a clemency hearing; it's not required by law. But the governor believes each case is unique, says his spokeswoman Margita Thompson.

Ms. MARGITA THOMPSON (Spokesperson for Governor Schwarzenegger): He definitely realizes that this is one of the most profound responsibilities that a governor can have in his hands.

JAFFE: Nevertheless, tomorrow's hearing will be a tightly controlled and tightly scheduled affair.

Ms. THOMPSON: It will be an hour. It will be only with counsel only. The governor will be able to ask them questions, and each side will be able to reserve time to rebut whatever may be presented by the other side.

JAFFE: The Tookie Williams story--from quadruple murderer to anti-gang activist--is unique, and his fate will be decided by a governor who also fits no mold. For example, Schwarzenegger supported conservative Republican initiatives in the November special election--every one of which lost--then last week, he appointed a prominent Democrat and gay rights activist as his new chief of staff. He's been far more lenient on parole than his Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis. And when Schwarzenegger revamped the Department of Corrections, he added the word `rehabilitation' to its title. Democratic state Senator Gloria Romero worked with Schwarzenegger on that, and thinks he will evaluate Tookie Williams' case with an open mind.

State Senator GLORIA ROMERO (Democrat, California): I believe this governor has a heart. I believe that this governor believes in redemption. I do believe that this governor will give as fair a shot as any to the clemency plea from Mr. Williams, his lawyers and from many of us who believe that, `If not this case, then which case merits an act of clemency?'

JAFFE: The last California governor to grant clemency was Ronald Reagan. The last to hold a clemency hearing was Republican Pete Wilson the early '90s. Wilson's press secretary in his first term was Dan Schnur, who learned something about how governors deal with clemency appeals.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Former Press Secretary): You have to give that governor the benefit of the doubt that he or she will not make the decision based even partially on political motivations while still recognizing that there are political ramifications of a decision in either direction.

JAFFE: Schwarzenegger would have little to lose, says Schnur, by denying clemency to Tookie Williams.

Mr. SCHNUR: There will certainly be people who are very upset with him. Most of those people, I'm guessing, are not people who would have voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger for re-election next year anyway.

JAFFE: On the other hand, a decision to grant clemency, says Schnur, would alienate his Republican base.

Mr. SCHNUR: He has a Republican Party base that is already upset with him for other reasons, most recently his decision to name a prominent Democrat as his chief of staff. If he did decide to grant clemency, it's something that would take a very difficult relationship and make it even more difficult.

JAFFE: But no matter what Schwarzenegger decides, if Californians see him treating Tookie Williams' plea for clemency with the gravity it deserves, it may boost the governor's battered image, says political analyst Raphael Sonenshein.

Mr. RAPHAEL SONENSHEIN (Analyst): There have been so few times since he's been governor when he's really delivered on that sense of being a different kind of person who looks at a problem without asking what the Republicans say and without asking what the Democrats say. So in a way, this is maybe an opportunity for him to just show that on a serious matter, he can make a serious decision.

JAFFE: The most serious decision that there is. Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."