Witness to an execution: The last day of Stanley "Tookie" Williams

By Barbara C. Becnel | Last updated: Dec 18, 2006 - 3:29:00 PM

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Stanley Tookie Williams
On December 13, 2005 at 12:01 a.m., I watched San Quentin State Prison officials walk my longtime friend Stanley Tookie Williams into the death chamber and then slowly torture him to death.

But the journey to that moment began the morning of the day before.

When I arrived at San Quentin around 10:30 a.m., I was surprised to see the curving mile-long street that leads to San Quentin State Prison lined with media vans with satellite dishes on top. Inside, it was a very different prison environment than I had ever seen. Having visited Stan nearly every week for almost 13 years, the hell that San Quentin personified was familiar to me. I knew the guards, the rules and the rancid filth of prison life. But on that morning, there were few guards, no visitors, new rules—and an unusual, overwhelming silence. I wondered if that silence was a bad sign of how the day would end.

But I shook off such feelings because I was on my way into the prison to visit Stan. And we would have to hear from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger about granting clemency—or not. There was no time left for Gov. Schwarzenegger to put off his decision.

(clockwise, top left): Rapper Snoop Dogg, Stanley Tookie Williams, actress Lynn Whitfield and Barbara Becnel.
During the last five days of Stan’s life, the rules had changed. Stan was moved to a different visiting area, separate from all other prisoners. There was a wooden conference table in the center of the room. Stan was on one side of that table; we, his visitors, were on the other side. A guard was seated in a corner of the room, there to ensure that Stan did not have any private moments.

The theory was that a condemned prisoner left alone might try to kill himself under the stress of his imminent execution. The state of California wanted Stanley Tookie Williams to die on their watch. Suicide was not an acceptable outcome.

Another rule change had to do with how Stan was allowed to receive his visitors. Prior to the last days of his life, Stan was handcuffed behind his back as he traveled from his cell to the visiting room. Those handcuffs were removed as he entered the visiting booth, allowing him to greet his visitors with a warm embrace. Now, each handcuff was attached to a chain locked around his waist. His feet were shackled and he was forced to sit in a steel chair bolted to the floor. The thickest chain was reserved for attaching Stan to the steel chair itself. The set-up was similar to the Hannibal Lecter character in the movie, The Silence of the Lambs.

Stan had to sit in a rigid and upright position. He had virtually no freedom of motion due to the many metal constraints. To disconnect and reconnect him to those apparatuses took so much time that Stan, during those last few days, denied himself food and drink for 10 hours at a time to save the precious remaining moments of his life from being used going to the restroom and back.

I was traveling that last day with two friends—Shirley Neal and Rudy Langlais—who were also friends of Stan. Despite this chair-and-chain torture scenario, when we arrived Stan was maintaining astonishing sangfroid—a French term that means calm under pressure, and a favorite word of Stan’s.

While we all waited for Gov. Schwarzenegger’s decision on clemency, Stan talked about his relationship with the One God and his gratitude for the opportunity to serve humanity as God permitted him to do from a prison cell. Only God could have plucked him from the certain death of the streets and allowed him to live to be 51 and to help at-risk youth throughout the world, he said.

Stan shared that he knew criminal justice officials were disappointed because their system of injustice had not succeeded in breaking him and that they were unhappy about his rehabilitation. “A beast may have come into this prison, but a redeemed man will be the one to walk into the death chamber tonight to be executed, if the Almighty allows it to be,” Stan said. “That’s why I feel fine. I know who I am. The system didn’t help me to redeem myself. I did it with God. So I feel peace.”

Later that afternoon, when Stan’s lawyers brought the governor’s denial of clemency document to the prison, Stan’s equanimity was not disturbed. He simply planned the rest of his day. Each of us would get a short, private visit with Stan, he told us. Then, he would bring us all back together for one last visit as a group.

During this time, I asked Stan to reconsider an earlier decision that he had made: He did not want me or anyone else in the death chamber with him. Stan was prepared to die alone. But on that last day, I pointed out that he would not be alone, that there would be a room full of people who were not his friends and those people would be projecting hatred and vengeance toward him. I told Stan that he deserved better than that. He deserved in his final moments on earth to be able to look into the eyes of people who cared about him. I asked him to let me do that for him; let me be in the death chamber with him. He finally agreed and said that, no matter what was happening to him, he would raise his head and smile, to acknowledge me and his other two friends before he was killed. And that is exactly what happened.

At 6 p.m., prison guards were sent into the visiting room and demanded that we leave. They unhooked Stan from the Hannibal Lecter apparatus and he immediately stood up in a proud way—he held his head up, his powerful body expanded. His presence took up every inch of space in the room. I walked backwards out of the room, trying to see all that I could see of Stan alive and upright before I would have to view him on a gurney, hours later, in the death chamber.


As we waited in a guard-driven van parked outside of San Quentin’s death chamber, we were told the rules: We could not speak above a whisper and we could not “sob loudly.” The sanction for breaking the rules was immediate ejection from the death chamber. We were also told that the “whole thing”—the murder of Stan—would take only a few minutes. It, in fact, took 35 minutes.

The death chamber is like a dungeon, with concrete walls and floors, and without any windows. We had to stand on cement tiers two feet above ground level. The District Attorney and the victim’s family sat on chairs in front of the windowed area where Stan would be killed. White curtains surrounded that glassed-in area, as if it were a stage.

At 12:01 a.m., the curtains opened and Stan, in chains, handcuffs and shackles, was brought into the room behind the glass and helped onto a gurney. And the torture began. An unlicensed prison nurse struggled to get a tube into Stan’s vein. It took her 20 minutes. We learned months later—after an investigation launched by a Federal district court judge regarding the botching of Stan’s execution—that this nurse caused two of Stan’s veins to collapse. So instead of connecting a tube into each arm so that he would have a back-up—a way of getting the drugs needed to keep him from feeling excruciating pain—she only hooked up one tube to one arm and then gave up and walked out. The prison’s protocols require that the execution stop until the prisoner is properly catheterized. But the warden overrode such protocols and the execution continued.

The drug designed to make Stan lose consciousness worked instantaneously. His head fell back from watching Shirley, Rudy and me one last time. But the second drug, a paralytic agent, only partially worked. His face was paralyzed, immobilized. He appeared to be sleeping peacefully. His lungs were paralyzed, which prevented him from screaming in pain, but his midsection was not affected. Stan’s stomach began to contort itself in unnatural ways: His abdomen caved in so deeply that he appeared to be a starving person, a shocking image considering Stan was 5’10” and weighed 250 lbs. of pure muscle. This ugly struggle to die lasted for 10 full minutes before Stan was pronounced dead.

During that time, a third drug was administered, which provoked a massive heart attack.

Shirley, Rudy and I protested in the death chamber: First, by mouthing to Stan how much we loved him and would miss him, then by raising our fists in the ‘Black Power’ salute, which caused Stan to chuckle during the nurse’s failed attempts to insert the tubes. And at the end, we broke the rules and defied the state’s silent, so-called civil ritual of death, by shouting in unison, “The state of California just killed an innocent man,” as we stood to leave the chamber. Our chant reverberated throughout the room and later around the world when it was reported by the media witnesses.


On September 26, 2006, a Federal district court judge held hearings in a San Jose, California courtroom about lethal injection protocols and what went wrong with the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. I was there for that first day of hearings and learned even more about how Stan was tortured and killed.

A representative of the California State Attorney General’s office admitted under penalty of perjury that Stan’s execution was riddled with mistakes.

A respected veterinarian stated that the three-drug cocktail used by California Corrections personnel to kill people was a concoction that would never be used to euthanize dogs or cats because it was illegal in at least 45 states. This veterinarian said the California lethal injection protocol makes it highly likely that the prisoner will awaken in the middle of the process and feel unbearable pain. The likelihood of tortuous pain is an unacceptable risk in euthanizing animals.

A pharmacological expert testified that the drug used to put Stan to sleep had unique properties: It knocks a person out immediately, but its “half-life”—its ability to keep that person asleep—was very short. For the average person, he said, the drug would wear off and the person would begin to wake up within 2.5 to 3.5 minutes after injection. Stan lived 10 minutes from the moment he was put to sleep.

We await this judge’s ruling as to whether lethal injection procedures currently practiced will continue in California. Now, largely because of Stan’s botched and inhumane execution, a death row prisoner named Michael Morales is still alive, and all death row prisoners in California are temporarily safe from execution because the Federal judge has placed a moratorium on all executions in California until he rules on this matter.

This is yet another example of how the authorities were able to destroy Stan’s body, but will be unable to obliterate his spirit and his work—his legacy as a peacemaker, life-affirming activist and a man who epitomized tremendous resolution and courage.

During my last private time with Stan, he instructed me to cremate his body and spread his ashes in South Africa. He wanted his legacy to continue on several fronts: (1) steering youth away from gangs and violence; (2) encouraging youth to become literate and educated; and (3) supporting efforts to end the death penalty as well as reform a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

On June 25, 2006, Shirley and I distributed Stan’s ashes in a beautiful lake in Soweto, in South Africa’s Thokoza Park. I will reprint Stan’s anti-gang elementary school books in the months to come. I have established a STW Legacy Fund to raise money to provide grants to groups working to achieve street peace or higher literacy among at-risk youth, and to abolish the death penalty and construct a truly fair criminal justice system that is no longer grounded in bias based on race and class.

On December 12, 2006, Shirley and I produced a performance at the Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California, which included a reenactment of the execution of our extraordinary, gifted friend. Our intent was to make the public aware of how horrific state-sponsored murder is. Authorities say they are killing in the name of the people. Yet, only a small, handpicked group of people is allowed to see what is done when they murder in the middle of the night. We want people to see what we saw. We hope that it will inspire the public to stand up and demand that the barbaric death penalty is ended in California and elsewhere.

Shirley and I will also co-produce a full-length play in February 2007 that will offer considerable detail about the last two weeks of Stan’s life, so that the public will better understand the spiritual ascendancy of Stanley Tookie Williams as well as the crass behind-the-scenes political motivations that led to his death.

I will never regret being there for Stan in those last moments of his life. There was so much revenge and racism in that death chamber directed at Stan, we were able to provide a pocket of caring in an environment where none would have otherwise existed.

Finally, the experience has put steel in my spine, a new strength that propels me to challenge capital punishment, criminal justice reform, political leaders and parties as well as all institutions that continue to abuse power to crush or control the ordinary people of this state and nation.

My memories of what happened to Stanley Tookie Williams fuel my passion to fight for change. This I know: Some of us have not forgotten what was done to Stan. Some of us will never forget.

(Barbara Becnel is a longtime friend, editor and advocate for Stanley Tookie Williams. She is also a national board member of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a nonprofit agency headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Some of this essay is adapted from the book “Eyewitness: The True Story Behind the Execution of Stanley Tookie Williams, to be published spring 2007 by Damamli Publishing Company. All rights reserved. )

Barbara Becnel may be reached at (510) 235-9780 or via email at For more information about Stanley Tookie Williams, visit his website at