Tuesday, December 13, 2005

LAT, Especially George Skelton, Provides Good Coverage of Tookie Williams Case

The Los Angeles Times this morning shows how capable it is of providing varied, timely coverage of a major issue on deadline in the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, founder of the Crips gang. Since the execution was only culminated at 12:35 a.m., it is particularly impressive that the paper was able to get it into the homes of so many readers Tuesday morning.

Even the editorial pages, on this occasion, deserve some commendation. In the usually woeful Current section, there was a pungent debate on the subject in the weeks leading up to the execution, and there was an editorial consistent with the Times' traditional challenge to capital punishment in the newspaper today.

However, a really good editorial page would have taken a position beforehand on whether the execution should go forward. The Times editorial page is not really good, unfortunately.

But, for my money, state political columnist George Skelton, in particular, deserves the highest compliments for staying with this topic, arguing persuasively his implicit support of capital punishment in the Williams case, and not allowing readers ever to be fooled into thinking that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was likely to grant clemency in the case.

On the day before the execution, Skelton, who usually is well aware of the lay of the land in California policy and politics, astutely noted that Williams' steady claim of innocence in the case "makes it tough on a governor weighing clemency. The condemned man won't say he's sorry for killing his (four) victims. And there's no real doubt of his guilt."

Skelton had, earlier in the column, declared himself, "...here's a cold-blooded killer who's begging for mercy while refusing to admit his guilt. He isn't expressing any remorse for blowing away four innocent helpless people with a shotgun in two cheap robberies 20 years ago."

And, he quoted former Gov. Pete Wilson as observing, "Clemency is very difficult to earn. If you've been guilty of a brutal murder, it seems to me you're called upon to pay for it with your life. There is a very slippery slope that would encourage simulated redemption and good works to escape that penalty."

Skelton declared, also, in advance that he would be surprised if Schwarzenegger granted clemency because "if there is one thing Schwarzaenegger seems to firmly believe in, it is that a governopr should follow the people's will.

"Californians in 1978 voted to reinstate capital punishment, fitting it with new Supreme Court guidelines. And they still overwhelmingly favor it," he observed.

We're very lucky Skelton neither took the buyout, nor was laid off, like his friend in the Sacramento bureau, Bill Stall. We need Skelton at the paper, just like we need so many people who have been cavalierly dismissed by the Tribune Co. and the new publisher, Jeff Johnson.

Having said all this, I still was rather surprised yesterday to run into the legislator Mark Ridley-Thomas at the memorial service of Marvin Braude and to have learned from him that the governor did not do the courtesy of telling key black legislators of his decision against clemency in advance.

Since this was a big issue in the black community, and the governor has declared he is reaching out to all parts of the state's political establishment, it would have been appropriate had he talked to the black legislators about it before announcing his decision.

The governor's statement was compelling, and perhaps the Times should have published all of it, but it did publish extensive excerpts. In the parts published, Schwarzenegger viewed Williams' so-called redemption as hollow and said he did not believe him.

The Times' coverage in the days leading up to the execution, and then this morning in its wake, was massive, as it should have been. Maybe, the Tribune Co. doesn't appreciate California sensitivities, but it's clear the newspaper's editor, Dean Baquet, does.

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