AP Legal Affairs Writer
SAN FRANCISCO - A federal appeals court refused to consider blocking the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, a founder of the notorious Crips street gang who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to grant Williams another hearing based on his argument that prosecutors violated his rights when they dismissed all potential black jurors from hearing the case. Agreement from a majority of the 24 active judges is required to grant a rehearing.
Judge Johnnie Rawlinson was joined by eight other judges in a written opinion favoring a rehearing. She said Williams, who is black, deserves a new trial because his attorney did not object to the unlawful removal of black panelists during jury selection.
"If our judicial system is to inspire a sense of confidence among the populace, we must not, we cannot permit trials to proceed in the face of blatant, race-based jury-selection practices," said Rawlinson, a Clinton appointee who is black.
"The very legitimacy of our system of justice depends upon continued vigilance against such practices."
Williams, who was convicted in 1981 of killing four people, will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, said his attorney, Andrea Asaro of San Francisco.
"If you have a biased jury considering your guilt or innocence, that's unconstitutional," Asaro said. "This raises constitutional implications for the fairness of the trial."
She noted a 1986 Supreme Court ruling prohibiting race from being a reason for excusing jurors.
The majority of judges who declined a rehearing did so without comment.
Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, made a brief statement after the appeals court ruling: "A jury determined that the appropriate sentence for Stanley Williams for his crimes was death. We're defending that judgment."
Wednesday's decision was the latest setback for the former Los Angeles gang leader.
In 2002, a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based court approved his execution but did not fully consider the jury selection process or whether Williams' counsel was ineffective. Asaro then asked the court to rehear the case, leading to Wednesday's decision.
In the 2002 decision, the panel said Williams had run out of legal options but suggested he was a good candidate for clemency. The judges cited the children's books he has written from prison, in addition to messages of peace he posts on the Internet.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has rejected clemency for the first two condemned men asking to commute their terms to life without parole. In Schwarzenegger's latest rejection, just last month, he said an inmate's model behavior in prison was not enough to sway him to grant mercy.
If Wednesday's ruling survives scrutiny by the Supreme Court, it could pave the way for as many as three executions in California this year. That would be the most since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.
Last month, a Redwood City man was executed for killing two women in 1981. A week later, the 9th Circuit cleared for execution the leader of a Fresno crime ring who ordered murders from his cell at Folsom State Prison.
Williams and a high school buddy, Raymond Washington, started the Crips street gang in Los Angeles in 1971.
Williams was sentenced to death for fatally shooting Albert Owens, a Whittier convenience store worker in 1979. He also was convicted of using a shotgun a few days later to kill two Los Angeles motel owners and their daughter during a robbery.
He claims he is innocent, arguing that jailhouse informants fabricated testimony that he confessed to the murders.
"If this is OK with the public for a person to be executed who could not get a fair trial, if that is OK, I don't know what to say," said Barbara Becnel, who has co-written the children's books with Williams.
She said Williams has received more than 40,000 e-mails since April, when "Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story" aired on television. Many messages came from young gang members who said his life story helped them turn their lives around, she said.
While in San Quentin State Prison, Williams has been nominated five times for a Nobel Peace Prize and four times for the Nobel Prize for literature for his series of children's books and international peace efforts intended to curtail youth gang violence, Becnel said.
The case is Williams v. Woodford, 99-99018.
Editors: David Kravets has been covering state and federal courts for more than a decade.