Sandra Smith Thayer recalls that one of the most surreal things about visiting Stanley “Tookie” Williams on San Quentin’s Death Row in the spring of 2005 was passing through security with children who were going to see their fathers.
Thayer, a 34-year-old senior associate in the Los Angeles office of Howrey, ventured far outside her world of complex civil litigation when Howrey was named co-counsel on the Williams clemency petition. The fight for Williams’ life received international attention right up until the 51-year-old convicted killer was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 13, 2005.
The case hadn’t hit the front pages yet when Thayer and her colleagues visited Williams for several hours one Saturday morning in April 2005.
“The visiting center at San Quentin is right next to the execution chamber,” she recalls. “We were assigned a ‘cage’ and locked into it before they brought Tookie in. We plied him with trays of food from the vending machines because the prisoners say that it’s so much better than the prison food.”
Thayer and the other lawyers wanted to review with Williams the strategy they hoped would save his life. “He was very soft-spoken, which was odd because he’s such an imposing figure,” Thayer says.
That December, when the Williams case was receiving international attention, Thayer and her colleagues met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later denied Williams clemency.
Thayer wasn’t at San Quentin when Williams died, but she says she was present emotionally that day and for several weeks after the execution. “All of us felt very defeated. You always second-guess yourself and wonder if there was anything else you could have done.
“I learned a lot,” she adds. “It was the sort of experience that makes you question your own beliefs and figure out what you stand for.”