UPDATE: A Pennsylvania judge on Friday, September 28, granted a stay of execution and a new sentencing hearing to 46-year-old convicted murderer Terrance Williams, who was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday, October 3.
Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, reports the New York Times, ruled that prosecutors had withheld evidence that the man Williams killed, Amos Norwood, engaged in homosexual relationships with minors, evidence that supported the claim that Williams had killed Norwood for having abused him from the age of 13, and not due to a robbery, as prosecutors argued.
Philadelphia district attorney R. Seth Williams said he would immediately appeal the ruling to the State Supreme Court.
A death penalty case in Pennsylvania involving a convicted murderer who claims his victim sexually abused him—a potential motive that was kept from the jury—is refocusing national attention on capital punishment.
Terrance “Terry” Williams, a once promising student athlete, is set to be executed October 3 for the beating death of Amos Norwood, a church deacon and choir leader. Norwood’s partially burned body was discovered in a Philadelphia cemetery four days after he was killed with a tire iron in June 1984.
Throughout the trial and appeals process, prosecutors have maintained Williams’s motivation was robbery. The killer’s defense team argues the violence stemmed from years of sexual abuse perpetrated by Norwood—an assertion that the jurors who sentenced Williams to die never heard.
Williams’s case has all the hallmarks of a hot button death penalty trial. A jury missing key information, a young defendant without resources to pay for a credible defense, and a conviction brought with testimony witnesses are now recanting.
If Williams is put to death, he will be the first person executed in Pennsylvania in 13 years. Whatever the outcome, the case is galvanizing a national anti-death penalty push.
The defense team has asked for clemency on account of new testimony from Terrance Williams’s accomplice, Marc Draper, who, like Williams, was 18 at the time of Norwood’s murder.
Draper’s new account, according to reports, is that police told him to testify that robbery, not past sexual abuse, was the motive and that the prosecutor offered to support his parole applications if he didn’t mention rape at the trial. After testifying against Williams, Draper plead guilty to second-degree murder and received a life sentence.
Meanwhile, Williams was found guilty of first degree murder, robbery and conspiracy on February 3, 1986. His earlier record of violent crime, including the murder six months earlier of Herbert Hamilton, whose body was found naked and stabbed, factored into the jury’s decision.
The jury that handed down the death penalty did not hear Williams’s defense team’s assertion that Norwood and Hamilton had both sexually abused him starting when he was 13 years old.
One of the judges in the case called Williams “Jekyll and Hyde,” noting he was a high-school quarterback and college freshman who had committed two brutal murders before he turned 19 (the killing of Hamilton, for which he was convicted of third-degree murder, happened when Williams was 17).
Williams’s clemency case has gathered momentum in recent years. Some 359,000 supporters, including former judges, lawyers, clergy, counselors and 35 children’s advocates, have signed a petition for clemency, that can be accessed here. The petition reasons that the murders stemmed from a long history of abuse and that Williams should be granted clemency as a result.
Some former jurors in the case say they wouldn’t have imposed a death sentence if they had known about the abuse. Even Norwood’s widow, Mamie Norwood, has forgiven the man who took her husband’s life. “Terry is deserving of mercy,” she wrote on his behalf.
But on Monday the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted against clemency for Williams, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The inmate’s last legal hope is a hearing Thursday at the Court of Common Pleas at the Philadelphia Courts. If the pleas court denies Williams, the possible intervention of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett (R) is all that will stand between Williams and the death sentence.
The prosecution contends Williams could have raised the issue of sexual abuse at his original trial, but instead chose an alibi defense. Now that his appeals are exhausted, the defense is making a ploy “to get a stay of execution from a higher court,” said Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg.
Still, the case is generating national attention on anti-death penalty efforts. Lawmakers in Montana, Maryland, Washington and Kansas are considering legislation that would halt executions in those states. Pennsylvania and Ohio have task forces studying the issue.
In California, though, voters will be able to decide directly whether to replace capital punishment with life imprisonment through Proposition 34.
The Yes side on Proposition 34—the Yes vote is a vote to replace the death penalty—has raised $5.4 million, compared to only about $200,000 for the No side. That figure seems to foreshadow an easy win for the Yes side, but it’s much harder to get a proposition approved in California than voted down.
“It would be enormously important for the national effort to replace the death penalty [in California]” Natasha Minsker, the campaign manager for the Yes side, tells TakePart. Eliminating capital punishment in California would take a quarter of the nation’s condemned prisoners off Death Row.
The Williams case in Pennsylvania has “heightened the awareness across the country,” Minsker says. “It’s reminded people of the importance of the issue.”
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