Thu, Dec 15, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Arnie dodges execution's political bullet

POLITICALLY SAFE Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's celebrity governor, made a sensible decision not to grant Stanley `Tookie' Williams clemency, analysts say


By not stopping the execution of condemned killer Stanley "Tookie" Williams on Tuesday, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger avoided putting a nail in his own political coffin, academics said.

While several thousand Williams supporters stood outraged as the gang founder turned anti-gang advocate was put to death in San Quentin Prison, a recent poll showed more than two-thirds of Californians support the death penalty.

Schwarzenegger, who received a drubbing on a number of referendums in a special vote last month, took a politically safe position by refusing Williams' request to commute his sentence to life imprisonment, political analysts said.

Sparing a notorious Crips gang founder convicted of four shotgun murders would have alienated law-and-order voters further, just a year before Schwarzenegger has to stand for reelection, said Taeku Lee, a professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley.

"There has been a sea change over the past few decades in terms of public support for the death penalty. In the US as a whole, support for the death penalty is more than two-to-one," Lee said.

"For a politician who is on the ropes to come across as for the death penalty makes political sense," he said. "It is important to be strong on elements of justice and crime."

Despite the state's ultra-liberal reputation, the death penalty "runs a very deep current in California," according to Bill Whalen, a Hoover Institution fellow who advised former governor Pete Wilson from 1995 to 1999.

"It is a rare issue that goes across the Republican and Dem-ocratic divide," Whalen said.

"I don't think Schwarzenegger made a political decision, but there would have been a cost had he granted clemency," he said.

Schwarzenegger, the Hollywood action-movie king and star of the film Terminator, swept into office in a 2002 recall campaign against the previous governor.

But his popularity has sunk in recent months across the state. Last month he was dealt a bitter defeat when voters soundly rejected referendum measures on which he had staked his reputation.

Advertisements against his referendums featured police, firefighters and teachers contending he did not share their values, Whalen said.

"Think how horrible it would have been for him politically to have a mother of a murder victim in an ad saying `Schwarzenegger doesn't share my values and spared the man who killed my child,'"he said.

Affordable housing, equality in education, decent transportation, and "a desire to live free of crime" are key issues to California voters, Whalen said.

"Rather than being seen as a deterrent, the death penalty is seen as a symbol of a strong justice system," Whalen said.

In largely liberal California, a conservative politician can get away with liberal stands in cases of abortion or gay rights, but not with the death penalty, Berkeley politics professor Henry Brady said.

Williams' campaign against gang violence while in prison, and his writing of childrens' books with an anti-gang message, had inspired a vocal national movement to grant him clemency.

But in this case, Schwarzenegger had "a winning formula" for denying clemency because Williams never admitted guilt or apologized for the 1979 murders, according to Brady.

"In California, the thinking tends to be that if someone commits a horrible crime and gets the death penalty, why isn't it enforced?" Whalen said.

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