Barbara Becnel spearheaded the fight to stop the execution of Stan Tookie Williams. She was an advocate for and close collaborator with Stan, having co-authored a series of anti-gang books with him. Barbara was present in the witness room when Stan was executed in December of last year. In this interview, Barbara recounts this experience and reflects on the political motivations of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in denying clemency for Stan.
You were a witness to Stan’s murder in the execution chamber. What would you like people to know about that experience?
The Campaign to End the Death Penalty is launching a national speaking tour this fall to expose the execution ritual conducted every time a person is “put to death.” Those who have witnessed executions firsthand will speak, as well as former death row prisoners who faced their own executions. As Bill Babbitt, who witnessed his own brother’s execution, said: “As a former supporter of the death penalty, imagine my rude awakening and horror as I watched my kid brother die on his birthday at San Quentin prison in California on May 4, 1999.
After a four-year, $7 million investigation, special prosecutors have released their findings into police torture in Chicago, and the results are familiar.
Once again, former Commander Jon Burge and the white police officers under him—who, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “ for two decades coerced dozens of conventions with fists, kicks, radiator burns, guns to the mouth, bags over the head and electric shock to the gentitals”—are walking away scot-free for their crimes.
By: Stanley Howard, pardoned from Illinois death row
After years of fighting, organizing and exposing the cases of the Death Row 10 and the entire Burge torture scandal, we now stand at a major turning point in our movement.
In 2002, we won the right to have a special prosecutor investigate the issue of police torture. I was thrilled with having independent investigators look into this scandal, because I was positive it would reveal that fired Chicago police Commander Jon Burge and his underlings (who were all white) had systematically tortured over 150 Black criminal suspects.
I saw a guy from the CEDP on the news speaking about the Daley/Devine connection to all of the torture cases, and that you all are demanding new trials for all the torture victims. I’m aware of the fact that a lot of the things that are now coming to light are a direct result of many years of hard work and dedication by unique individuals and many grassroots members and organizations.
Therefore, let me thank you personally and on behalf of all those who also have fallen prey to this corrupt and racist criminal just-us system...
I had a feeling that they were going to pull a city of Chicago method: a cover-up. They can call it whatever name they put on that report, but the fact of the matter is they are covering asses. However, it was good to see Daley on the defensive and that’s what needs to be done. Keep putting the pressure on him. That report is a joke. Out of all those names and people they talked to in that so-called investigation, they didn’t find any more than two others in addition to Andrew Wilson that they say they can prove were tortured.
Clarence Darrow once argued in a debate about capital punishment that the reason hanging women for witchcraft stopped was because jurors refused to carry out the sentence—even though judges and clergy were urging they be hanged. “[The judges] instructed juries to hang old women for witchcraft, and they refused, and the old women were not hanged—and that was abolished in New England.”
One of the fundamental lies about the death penalty is that it is a punishment that can be carried out humanely, rather than plain murder.
The need to perpetuate this lie has led states over the past decade to turn almost exclusively to lethal injection, which is viewed as a modern innovation—a kinder, gentler method of execution. Scientific sterility and a medical façade allows lethal injection to be sanitized in a way that the electric chair—with its dated mechanics and gruesome botched executions—did not.
On August 24, I watched with horror and intense sadness as the state of Texas murdered my good friend Justin Fuller.
Justin and I wrote and visited over the last 8 years, almost from the beginning of his time on Texas death row. When I met Justin, he was a young man of 20, full of hope and of life. He was always smiling whenever we visited; he seemed to never let the reality of his existence on death row get him down.
Chol Soo Lee, a Korean American immigrant, was wrongfully convicted for the 1973 killing of a Chinatown gang leader in San Francisco and sentenced to life in prison. He was then sentenced to death for the self-defense killing of another prisoner. Chol Soo spent ten years in prison for a crime he did not commit, eight of those on death row. Investigative reporting by KW Lee sparked the formation the Free Chol Soo Lee Defense Committee which spurred a national pan-Asian movement. Chol Soo finally won his freedom in 1983.
The State of Ohio is now preparing to kill an innocent person, John Spirko, on November 29th. The evidence of Spirko’s innocence is so strong that Republican Governor Bob Taft has been forced to delay the execution four times. Spirko was convicted for the 1982 murder of Betty Mottinger, but the case against him smacks of problems with the prosecutorial process.
As the summer winds down in California, the CEDP chapters are gearing up for a Fall of activism. With a defacto moratorium in place, we have an overall plan to organize around the lethal injection issue. We will broaden the issue into a fight about why the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment no matter how executions are carried out, and we’ll make connections to other issues like racism and wrongful convictions.
This summer, the Austin Chapter organized two movie screenings of State vs. Reed, a documentary that scrutinizes the state’s case against Reed, by presenting a strong case of reasonable doubt. For years, the chapter has worked closely with Rodney Reed and his family, calling for his conviction to be overturned. In July, our chapter organized a very lively protest to call attention to new issues in Rodney’s case.
The Campaign to End the Death Penalty has been busy in New York this summer. With school out, members of the recently formed Hunter College chapter joined forces with the Harlem chapter to build struggle against the death penalty.