That’s how long Terry Williams has been under a sentence of death for killing Amos Norwood. As we covered here almost five years ago, a state court judge in 2012 ruled that Mr. Williams deserved a new penalty phase because the prosecutors withheld important evidence that may have persuaded jurors to spare him from the ultimate punishment. But, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned that decision in December of 2014. In June of 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision because one of the justices who ruled on the case, Ronald Castille, had actually been the District Attorney in Philadelphia when Mr. Williams was prosecuted and therefore should have recused himself.
This week, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s remand, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court evenly split on the question of whether Mr. Williams deserved a new penalty phase. Two justices agreed with the defendant that the State’s Brady violations warranted relief; two disagreed. (Three justices did not participate in the decision.) With the split, the lower court’s ruling—the one that was handed down in 2012—is affirmed. In short, despite the circuitous route his case took, Mr. Williams has finally secured a new trial on the question of whether he deserves a sentence of life imprisonment or the death penalty.
That question is far more complicated than the jurors at Mr. Williams’s trial realized. The trial prosecutor, Andrea Foulkes, told jurors that this was a case of a random yet vicious attack—one without context, and one that deserved the most severe punishment available under law:
“[Y]ou know the horrible circumstances of the death of Amos Norwood. You know that the defendant, Terrence Williams, for no reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home, that he and another man tied him up in the darkness of a cemetery, and beat him to death, squashed him like a bug that you might be irritated with against the windshield, beat him with two blunt instruments.”
But, it turns out the prosecution knew far more than it had disclosed to either the jury or the defense team. As Justice Donohue’s opinion in favor of a new sentencing hearing explained:
“At the time Prosecutor Foulkes made this argument, she knew that the Commonwealth’s files contained multiple documents, some in her own handwriting, demonstrating that Amos Norwood was neither kind nor innocent, and that he was in fact a sexual abuser of young adolescents, perhaps including Williams. Without this information, which was not provided to defense counsel as required by Brady, the jury returned a death sentence.”
Foulkes’s failure to disclose information about Norwood’s predatory behavior appears to be anything but an oversight. Indeed, Foulkes had tried Mr. Williams earlier in 1986 for another murder—of another individual who had sexually abused Terry as a child (Herbert Hamilton)—and tried to obtain a first-degree murder conviction. In that case, jurors learned about the victim’s practice of molesting juveniles, and they returned what to the prosecution was a disappointing third-degree murder conviction.
When it came time to pursue the conviction for the murder of Norwood, Foulkes attempted to avoid the same “mistake.” Justice Donohue described what the trial court found in the 2012 post-conviction ruling: “the Commonwealth had suppressed multiple pieces of information, including the sanitized witness statements of Mamie Norwood [the victim’s wife] and Reverend Poindexter, the police report regarding Ronald House, and Marc Draper’s [the co-defendant’s] statements regarding [Williams’s] true motivation for the crime.” This was not a case where law enforcement somehow forgot to turn over a box that was misplaced in some offsite storage warehouse; several pieces of exculpatory information hitting on the exact same point were methodically manipulated to conceal the goods.
Perhaps it is obvious, but disclosure of this exculpatory evidence would have given the jurors a much more complex and real picture about the relationship between Mr. Williams and the victim. As Justice Donohue explained:
“With the suppressed evidence in hand, defense counsel could have effectively rebutted these closing arguments by emphasizing, credibly, that Norwood was in fact an abuser of teenage boys, possibly including Williams. In so doing, defense counsel could have argued that Williams feared that Norwood intended to abuse him at the cemetery and that his judgment was thus substantially impaired.”
This dramatically different understanding of the crime should have also coalesced with boatloads of mitigating evidence about Mr. Williams’s childhood that his trial lawyer never uncovered. In a terrific and haunting piece about the case, Josie Duffy Rice wrote for the Daily Kos about Mr. Williams’s extensive history of childhood abuse (in which he was raped several times), his being physically abused and brutalized by his parents at home and in public, and the completely inept lawyering that was performed by an attorney who did not even meet with Terry until the day before the trial began. The story is an important one to read, as it underscores the core dysfunctions that plague the administration of the American death penalty.
The 2012 ruling that now stands as the decisive opinion about Mr. Williams’s entitlement to a new sentencing trial could be characterized as courageous. But, that fact alone demonstrates how lopsided the field really is. Marc Bookman’s excellent 2015 piece about the Williams case in Mother Jones elucidates how the system is prepared to condemn a man, especially when he brings State misconduct into the light of day:
“You might assume that a prosecutor who hides key evidence, especially in a death penalty case, would be subject to discipline—if not criminal charges. But courts are as loath to punish a prosecutor as they are to assist a murderer. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in Commonwealth v. Terrance Williams, which was released in December 2014, contained not so much as a footnote scolding Foulkes for what Judge Sarmina politely termed “gamesmanship.” Instead, the court excoriated the defendant for failing to make an issue of his sexual abuse at the hands of the older man.”
Fortunately, through two (disturbingly) close but also unlikely decisions (the 5-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and the 2-2 Pennsylvania Supreme Court split on remand), Mr. Williams has been given another opportunity to avoid being killed by the State. While disgraced former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (who fought tooth and nail for years to execute the defendant) awaits a sentence on his federal bribery conviction, the pending transition at the prosecutor’s office presents a new opportunity to resolve the Williams case with a life-without-parole sentence. (It is worth mentioning that five jurors who sentenced Mr. Williams to death verified that they would have chosen a life sentence if they had learned about the victim’s behavior and the defendant’s background.) The presumptive incoming District Attorney, Democratic nominee Larry Krasner, has vowed never to seek the death penalty. That discretionary decision is the kind that can curb misconduct rather than reward it with another bite at the apple.