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Roundtable: Debating Capital Punishment


We're now joined by Joshua Marquis, district attorney of Clatsop County, Oregon. He's also vice president of the National District Attorneys Association and co-author of "Debating the Death Penalty." His article in the Los Angeles Times this past weekend was titled, simply, `He's A Murderer. He Should Die.'

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JOSHUA MARQUIS (District Attorney, Clatsop County, OR; Vice President, National District Attorneys Association): Thank you. That was not my headline, but the copy is definitely mine.

CHIDEYA: All right. I appreciate the clarification. But your feelings still jive with the headline, is that correct?

Mr. MARQUIS: It does. I don't think Tookie Williams is the kind of person who's deserving of the extreme clemency, which is available to Governor Schwarzenegger and most governors in most states. I know your other guests will claim that he is somebody who, in fact, has become a credit to the community, but the fact of the matter is, he continues to refuse to take responsibility for the deaths of Albert Owens and the Yang family and is morally responsibility for the deaths of probably thousands of people at the hands of--and the victims of street gangs which he co-founded, the Crips.

CHIDEYA: Let's move on to larger issues. What is the most persuasive argument that you could make for supporting the death penalty? According to many studies, it doesn't have a deterrent effect.

Mr. MARQUIS: Well, I actually disagree. The most recent find--academic study shows that, in fact, there is a distinct deterrent effect, but I don't think that's the main reason. The main reason is I support capital punishment the same reason I support a woman's right to choose. It's not something desirable. You don't want abortions. I'd rather not have the death penalty, but there are some crimes so evil and some things that call for basically the supreme sanction. I think it should be used very rarely. It is in the United States. And if there's any limitation, it probably should be that it's used less often than it is.

CHIDEYA: And what about the racial implications of how the death penalty is meted out?

Mr. MARQUIS: Mr. Williams will only be the second African-American Californian put to death in the last 35 years. And actually a white murderer is about twice as likely to be executed as a black murderer.

CHIDEYA: Would there be any political advantage for the governor to execute Tookie Williams or to pardon him?

Mr. MARQUIS: I think there probably is a greater political advantage for him to grant a commutation. Commutation is part of the legitimate death penalty process. And it is not outrageous to suggest commutation. I simply don't think it's appropriate in this case. I think there's a general political myth that there is some huge political backlash if the governor commutes, and that's simply not been the case in the United States for governors that have granted commutation.

CHIDEYA: Joshua Marquis is the vice president of the National District Attorneys Association and co-author of "Debating the Death Penalty."

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. MARQUIS: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: There are a range of responses to any death penalty case, from a full pardon, to clemency to execution. Now we're joined by three human rights campaigners who've long opposed the death penalty and they say that Tookie Williams' case, in particular, demonstrates how a person can turn his life around. Ending that life, they argue, would make a mockery of the notions of justice and redemption.

With us today is actor Danny Glover, chairman of TransAfrica Forum, an organization focusing on conditions in the African diaspora. And joining me here in Studio B at NPR West is actress Alfre Woodard, currently on ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Alfre Woodard is co-founder of Artists for a Free South Africa. Also we're joined by actor Mike Farrell who starred in the hit series "M*A*S*H." He's president of the anti-death penalty organization, Death Penalty Focus.

Welcome to you all.

Mr. MIKE FARRELL (Actor; President, Death Penalty Focus): Thank you very much.

Mr. DANNY GLOVER (Actor; Chairman, TransAfrica Forum): Thank you.

Ms. ALFRE WOODARD (Actress; Co-Founder, Artists for a Free South Africa): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So let me mention again that were just joined by Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association. Mike, how did you respond to his comments?

Mr. FARRELL: Well, Mr. Marquis is obviously a proponent of death and as such we disagree. But he said a couple of things that I think are important to clarify. He said that there are a number of recent studies demonstrating that deterrence in fact is a viable factor in the application of the death penalty. He is wrong there. No, I'm sorry. He is right that there are these studies; those studies have been disproven.

He said that the death penalty is used rarely in this country. It's certainly not used rarely enough. And it is, I think as the question pointed out, a demonstrably racist practice and one that is used only against the poor in this country and I think anybody who recognizes the statistical nature of the analysis of the death penalty would see that it is an embarrassment to all of us.

CHIDEYA: All of you are people who are working in the cultural realm as well as the social activist realm. You've had situations during this whole exploration of Tookie Williams' fate where people like Jamie Foxx and Snoop Dogg have come to really talk about what it meant for him to do gang reconciliation and truce work. How important is it for the cultural community--and I'm going to go to you first, Danny, and then you Alfre--how important it is for the cultural community to get involved and is that really a community that, say, middle America is going to listen to, Danny?

Mr. GLOVER: It is important for us as artists with our voice to use that voice in a constructive way and to allow people to kind of see another view of the situation, another view of the argument, another discussion. The issue around here is the level of discourse and I think artists have the capacity along with others within the community and within civil society to be a part of that.

CHIDEYA: And, Alfre, let me turn to you. You've worked with Artists for A New South Africa. South Africa has, you know, in recent years gone through a tremendous amount of change and went from a state that routinely used violence to one which has come to stand for the state opposing violence, political violence, and, of course, it has its crime like everyplace does. What does it do to a country to use violence as a tool?

Ms. WOODARD: And also in their constitution, it is an anti-death penalty country. As a matter of fact, I think we are one of the only certainly First World countries that are still ritualistically putting people to death which our laws seem to say is an answer for crimes committed in the fog of passion, anger, desperation or whatever. We also--we miss the mark a lot of times when we use this horrific law. So many times as has been proven that we have put to death people who were later found out to be innocent. And so it's wielding a terrible weapon.

You know, our natural motion is to go forward, is to go upward, and so when people pay attention to that, whether it's individuals or whether it's groups of people, they like to come out of a dark period into a brighter period. This is a chance for us right now in America I think to step up to a new level. You know, we don't have anyone that's on our plane anymore as a superpower, and we're having to come face to face with ourselves. It's a battle about who we are as a nation and as a people and especially a nation that says--constantly refers to God or a supreme being no matter what our religion is. We have the strong spiritual underpinnings and it is absolutely opposed to how we practice this idea of taking life. It's got us stuck in the Dark Ages. People are frustrated, they're angry, they're hurt when their loved ones are taken away. We want to strike back. We want to go for the throat, but we don't do things the way we did in the past. We know we don't fall off the edge of the world if we keep sailing east. We don't burn women because we're afraid of their power, their freedom or their intelligence. And so I think this is just another step up that we can take as a nation and it's a step we have to be courageous enough to take together.

CHIDEYA: Mike, let me go to you. You were giving a speech at a college I believe when the family of a victim who were pro-death penalty in that specific case said, `Hey, look, you haven't walked in our shoes. You can't understand our pain.' What did you really think and what did you really say at that point?

Mr. FARRELL: What I recommended to them and after expressing my sympathy, of course, for what had happened and explaining to them that there was no insult intended to them by my being in their community making my presentation--what I said was that there is an alternative. And that is embodied in an organization called Murder Victims Families For Reconciliation, a group of people who've suffered the same kind of pain in their experience but have come to understand that there is no benefit to them, no honor to their lost loved one, no hope for resurrection of their lost loved one by the extinguishing of the so-called, you know, supposed perpetrator of the crime and in that particular case there was some issue as to whether or not the individual on death row was, in fact, the perpetrator of the crime.

So I think the point really is that we as a society need to--as Alfre has suggested, we need to recognize that our future really is in the stars. The idea that striking out is the appropriate and positive response for a society that is claiming to be a civilized society is exactly backward so that when we talk to people who are victims, what we try to do and all of us in Death Penalty Focus and other organizations working with victims reach out to the best of our abilities and we try to help them understand that if we do away with the death system and put in its place, as the ultimate sanction, life in prison without possibility of parole, not only will we save a lot of time, energy and the possibility of killing wrongfully which I believe all killing is wrong, we also will free up tremendous time, energy and assets that can and should be used to help deal with the needs of these people, psychological needs, economic needs, the kinds of needs that their anger and fury are expressing without being able to express them personally.

CHIDEYA: Last question to each of you in turn. I'll start with you, Danny. What happens if/or--if Governor Schwarzenegger grants clemency or if he does not, Danny?

Mr. GLOVER: If he grants clemency or if he does not grant clemency, the movement to revitalize our spirit as a country, as people continues. If he grants clemency, then I think he's made a very courageous step, the governor makes a courageous step to do so, and he does so in the wake of the fact that we know that beyond the granting of clemency for Tookie Williams that there's so much work that we have to do and that we can build upon that in transforming the world and creating a world we want.


Ms. WOODARD: I just wanted to say this about Stanley "Tookie" Williams. I listened to several young people impassioned talking about how their lives had been saved by them. They talk very specifically--I won't go on, but they were saying literally, `You know, I was doing this. I was doing that,' or, `I was pulled that way. I wanted to say no but in my neighborhood there's nobody there to protect you. I have to be there. You don't know what we live like. You don't know.'

Mr. GLOVER: Yeah.

Ms. WOODARD: And that's the thing is that this man is from them, of them. They trust him. How would you feel about Tookie Williams? He is helping them to understand that violence is a pathetic substitute for the respect you get from gainful employment and from an education, but we need that voice that for right now is the voice that speaks the language and has the trust of the kids that we cannot reach and that is a large percentage of American kids.

CHIDEYA: Mike, you have been a longtime campaigner against the death penalty. What about this if/or?

Mr. FARRELL: Arnold Schwarzenegger has the opportunity before him to either be a leader or to be another cowardly politician trying to protect his turf. If he's a leader, he will recognize that Stanley Williams' leadership, Stanley Williams' example has reached out to countless numbers of young people and made for them real the possibility of hope and change. If he's a cowardly politician protecting his turf, he will let the man die and he will give those kids the message that there is no reason to hope or change.

CHIDEYA: We've been joined by actors and human rights campaigners Mike Farrell, Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. GLOVER: Thank you so much.

Ms. WOODARD: Thank you.

Mr. FARRELL: Pleasure.

GORDON: You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.