This morning, Friday Sept. 28, 2012, the life of Terrance Williams was temporarily spared the execution scheduled for him just days from now. He is also scheduled to have another hearing with the Pennsylvania pardons board.
It was a day of joy in a courtroom that for weeks was gradually packed with all manner of people interested in the case. Williams’ family and childhood friends were there since the first of the post-conviction relief act hearings began. Some of them broke out in applause and praise to God — silenced by court officers when Judge Sarmina read that the stay would be granted and that Williams was entitled to a new penalty phase.
Williams is one of over 200 people on Pennsylvania’s death row and almost half of those people have come from Philadelphia. Of the 95 people on death row that have come from Philadelphia courts, approximately 18 of those cases were tried and sentenced to death in a period from 1983 until 1987, according to an execution list maintained by the state. (See document below.) This four-year period has come under great scrutiny because of issues such as the McMahon tapes, an instructional video made in 1986 by senior prosecutor at the time in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office Jack McMahon on excluding “young blacks” from juries.
The verdict in the Williams hearing confirmed that the original prosecutor willfully withheld and suppressed important information relevant to the initial Williams case in the late 1980s, continuing the tragic saga of justice deferred in Philadelphia.
“The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office provides a voice for victims of crime and protects the community through zealous, ethical and effective investigations and prosecutions.” That is the statement on the current district attorney’s office website. Yet through the whole of these hearings and proceedings involving Williams’ life, the disturbing process of obtaining a capital conviction in Philadelphia becomes clear.
It is the job of the district attorney’s office to conduct zealous, ethical and effective investigations, but in the Williams case, they have fallen short. In closing arguments, the federal prosecutor referred to Williams as a teenaged prostitute and brushed off allegations of Norwood as a sexual predator because the exact age of the “young boys” was not clear. In her verdict, Judge Sarmina reminded the court that engaging in sexual acts with teenagers exclusively is ephebophilia.
The prosecutor in the original case had a statement from a reverend at St. Luke’s church, where Norwood volunteered, noting an issue with Norwood sexually propositioning a 17-year-old parishioner. That evidence was suppressed, as was the original statement of Mamie Norwood, the widow of the victim, who recently asked that Williams be granted clemency.
This is all in opposition to what the district attorney’s office stands for. They are to protect us. They are to be the example of ethics in our communities. For weeks, I sat at hearings, and the fight over Terrance Williams was palpable every moment. Must we fight for so many lives in this way?
Something is wrong with the capital punishment system in Pennsylvania, and our state is finally starting to see this. There are some in state government working to fix this problem, such as Senators Daylin Leach and Stewart Greenleaf, who on behalf of the bipartisan task force and advisory committee studying the death penalty in Pennsylvania, released a letter requesting “no execution be carried out in the Commonwealth” until the study is completed in December 2013. That we may be sure we are doing the right thing by proceeding with state executions; can we not wait a year until we are sure it is within the law and ethics of our state to do so?
Unfortunately it seems as if the Philadelphia D.A.’s office and Gov. Tom Corbett are not able to wait. Seth Williams issued a statement on the verdict and appealed Terrance Williams’ stay of execution within hours, and Corbett signed another execution warrant for a York County man on Sept. 12.
Poet Aja Beech is a board member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.