Rewriting The Past

Former Crips Leader Teaches Children How To Avoid Joining Gangs

Stanley "Tookie" Williams is a former gang leader, now on death row, who is teaching inner-city children how to avoid joining gangs. He's also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

He's spent 23 years – nearly half his life – at San Quentin State Prison, near San Francisco, awaiting an execution he's fighting to prevent, after his conviction on charges of robbing and murdering four people.

Williams says he's had plenty of time to reflect on the violence and destruction he caused by founding the Crips, the most notorious street gang in America. Correspondent Ed Bradley reports.

Eleven years ago, in an effort to redeem himself, Williams made an appeal to street gangs everywhere to make peace: "Working together, we can put an end to this cycle that creates deep pain in the hearts of our mothers, our fathers, and our people who have lost loved ones to this senseless violence."

Now, at 50, Williams is literally trying to rewrite his violent history. From his 9-by-4 foot prison cell, he has authored nine books for school children that warn about the perils of gangs and violence, gangs and drugs, gangs and self-esteem, and about the harsh realities of life in prison.

Williams has also been running a one-man multimedia campaign to promote his anti-gang message, which extends from the Internet, where he has his own Web site, to a reverential made-for-TV movie about his life. A public service announcement featuring Williams is also being broadcast by radio stations across the country.

It may be unheard of for a convicted murderer to be invited by public schools to talk directly to students by telephone from Death Row. But this is what's happening to Williams. 60 Minutes sat in one day when Williams used one of the three hours of phone time he's allotted per week to call a class at Leadership High School in San Francisco.

Many of the students there come from gang-infested neighborhoods and have experienced first-hand the effects of gang violence, like Orlando, a tenth-grade student. "A friend of mine from another school was shot and killed," says Orlando. "And a couple of weeks ago, another friend of mine was shot, but he survived."

The students, who had read Williams' book, "Life in Prison," prepared a list of questions for him.

"What caused you to change," asked one student, Bryce.

"It took years and years for me to experience a change," says Williams. "I started off reading a lot, and it opened up a new world for me. And in time, I developed a conscience, and I was no longer filled with self-hate."

"Are you afraid of dying or death," asked another student, Natasha.

"That's a nice question, I like that. Pretty profound," says Williams. "Well, honestly, I don't want to die. But death is a constant reminder here. It's something that I live with and I can't dwell upon all the time because I have to do what I can in order to write these books."

The students told 60 Minutes that what Williams has to say is having an impact on them at a critical time in their lives - when the pressure can be strong to join a gang.

"He really sincerely made a change and is trying to help us. And I think that I commend him for that. I mean, I know for sure it makes me want to stay outta San Quentin," says Orlando. "Just describing everyday things, the violence, having to look over your shoulder so you don't get stabbed. Everything. The prison is just not a place you wanna be."

"What he has done is turned his whole life around," adds another student. "And you can see that he's sincere because all the books he's written, the trouble he's gone through to try to turn people the other way that are going down the path he did."

It is Williams' work with these children and thousands of others who've read his books that prompted a member of the Swiss Parliament to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize four years ago. This nomination places him in the company of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa. Phillip Gasper, a California professor of philosophy, nominated Williams again this year.

"Here is somebody with so few resources, but through strength of personality and perseverance, he has managed to have this enormous impact. I think he's an incredible role model," says Gasper.

"There's no question that he has had a violent past. But, you know, the same is true of some other people that have won the Nobel Peace Prize as well. Henry Kissinger was awarded it in 1973, and you know, many people would claim that he's a war criminal. F.W. DeKlerk got it with the end of apartheid. He'd supervised that system of racism and oppression," adds Gasper.

"But the Nobel Peace Prize isn't awarded for what your past is like. You don't have to have an unblemished past. It's awarded on the basis of have you made a contribution towards peace, and that, I think, is what is true of Stanley Williams."

But not according to Vernell Crittendon, a San Quentin prison official who's been monitoring Williams for 23 years -- ever since he arrived on death row.

"I am aware that he has been nominated," says Crittendon. "I've actually had the opportunity to spend several hours with Mother Teresa when she visited here at San Quentin, as I was one of her personal escorts through the prison. And Stanley Williams is no Mother Teresa."

What does he think Williams is trying to accomplish with his books? "I think it's all part of his way of attempting to escape the executioner," he says, "and being held accountable for the heinous crime he [allegedly]committed on March 11, 1979, when he shot a 67-year-old man in a motel, and shot his 63-year-old wife in turn. And shot his 43-year-old daughter. And I think that he's trying to escape that consequence."

Although Williams has lost all of his numerous appeals so far, he still maintains he's innocent of the four murders that landed him in prison.

60 Minutes went to San Quentin recently to meet Williams. We weren't allowed to bring our television cameras inside, but we were permitted to have photographs taken in a visitor's cage on Death Row.

The next day, Correspondent Bradley spoke with Williams by speaker phone. "Some of your critics have said that your writing these books is merely a ploy by a guilty man," says Bradley. "That what you want to do is do nice things for society only after you've been locked away and sentenced to die."

"If that were true, there would be hundreds of others here and abroad, doing likewise before and after me," says Williams. "I'm not a coward. And I would never step on the backs of children to save my life."

The federal appeals court in California, which upheld Williams' death penalty conviction a year-and-a-half ago, also made a highly unusual statement in support of Williams. The court said that his "laudable efforts opposing gang violence" and his "good works and accomplishments since incarceration may make him a worthy candidate" for clemency from the governor.

That came as a surprise to Robert Martin, the man who prosecuted Williams and sent him to death row.

"I just was astonished that a judge would say that. Stanley was a very brutal person, and I would see no moral equivalent between what he's doing with the books and the crimes that have been charged," says Martin, who doesn't believe that Williams has redeemed himself.

"Let me put it to you this way. If you're an alcoholic, to be cured or to be rehabilitated, the first thing you have to do is to admit that you're an alcoholic. He's never admitted that he's a murderer. Therefore how can he be rehabilitated?"

What's more, Crittendon says that if Williams were totally rehabilitated, he would not only admit to the murders, he would also agree to be debriefed by prison officials, giving them information about the Crips and the way they operate. So far, this is something Williams has refused to do.

"By him being himself involved in debriefing, it opens the door for others that are in the Crips gang to come forward and they will tell their stories," says Crittendon. "But when they see their original godfather who stands tall in the face of, as they say, in the face of death, and he refuses to tell anything, then that makes that young 16-year-old that's out there with that weapon feel just as committed."

Williams has been in prison more than 20 years. What information could he have provided that would be of any value to law enforcements authorities who are investigating current gang activity?

"There's a great deal of contact that goes on between the outside community, and the inmates within these walls," says Crittendon. "He can explain to us how they gain their money, how they set up their trafficking. He can explain how they have set up for the collection of weapons."

Williams told Bradley that he doesn't have anything to give. He has no current information about the Crips, and even if he did, he says it would violate his code of honor to be debriefed: "I have to say that the word 'debriefing' is a euphemistic term for snitching. And my convictions won't allow that."

Crittendon disagrees. "We need to have role models, particularly in our African-American communities. And a role model that says, 'I don't snitch on gang members. I don't care how violent or what acts they carry out,' I think is the wrong message, because gangs are running rabid through our communities," he says. "Young people out there killing one another and they're buying into the same code of silence that Stanley Williams is sharing with you today."

Nevertheless, Gasper believes that the positive message Williams is sharing with children across the country in his books makes him worth more to society alive than dead.

"What good would come from executing this guy? Here is somebody who is saying to kids, 'I can show you that there's a different way.' Somebody who they will listen to," says Gasper. "If Stan is dead, then there aren't very many other people who can have that same kind of impact and influence on kids' lives."

How can Williams convince others that he is worthy?

"I'm just trying to remain optimistic and continue to do the things that I do," says Williams. "I don't have the power to stop these people from executing me. I wish I did. But I don't."

If Stanley Williams loses his remaining legal appeals, he is expected to ask California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for clemency, which could commute his sentence to life in prison. If the governor denies his request, Williams could be executed within a year.