This week, Mother Jones published a must-read story on Terry Williams, a Pennsylvania prisoner sentenced to death for killing a man who sexually abused him when Mr. Williams was a young teen. Mr. Williams was sent to death row after prosecutors withheld information, which prevented the jury from knowing about the relationship.
Mr. Williams' case begins with childhood sexual abuse. At 17, Mr. Williams killed a 51-year old man who had abused him for years. As the piece notes:
"By any definition--legal, ethical, psychological--a sexual encounter between a 13-year-old child and a 51-year-old man is rape."
The jury knew about this "relationship" and did not return the first-degree murder conviction sought by prosecutor Andrea Foulkes and instead issued a third degree verdict.
So, when Mr. Williams went on trial for killing another man who abused him, Mr. Bookman argues, the prosecution handled the case differently:
"The third degree verdict in the Hamilton case"colored Ms. Foulkes' decisions when she prosecuted [Williams] for the murder of Amos Norwood." Indeed, less than a year after the Hamilton trial, Foulkes told the Norwood jury that Williams had killed him "for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home."
Decades later, when all the prosecution's notes were uncovered, a judge ruled that they had been "sanitized" -- eliminating the evidence of Norwood's sexual proclivities." The jury only heard about the "kind man" - and voted for death. Now, several jurors in the Norwood case said in sworn statements that they would not have voted for death had they known the truth about the Mr. Norwood's relationship to Mr. Williams. Once the prosecutors' notes emerged, over 25 years later, a judge found prosecutorial misconduct and overturned the death sentence.
In the words of author Marc Bookman,
"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."
And so it was that years later the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Castille, who was the Philadelphia District Attorney who personally authorized the death penalty be sought against Mr. Williams in his original trial, reversed the lower court's finding and re-instated the death sentence. The Court
"excoriated the defendant for failing to make an issue of his sexual abuse at the hands of the older man. These were, in fact, the prosecution's own arguments, coming from the same DA's office that had recently acknowledged how excruciatingly difficult it was for sexual-abuse victims to go public."
In the new year, the U.S. Supreme Court will examine whether the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should have recused himself from considering Mr. Williams' case, since he was the District Attorney of Philadelphia during Mr. Williams' trial, appeal, and post-conviction appeal. Mr. Bookman's piece provides excellent background on this notable and complex case.