Push to shut down Pennsylvania’s death row focuses on man who killed his sexual abuser

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Unless the state’s Board of Pardons prevents it, Pennsylvania is about to execute Terrance “Terry” Williams, 46, who was sent to death row for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, a man who had sexually abused him as a child.  Months earlier, Williams had killed another man who had raped him. Gov. Tom Corbett set an execution date of October 3, which would make Williams the first person put to death in Pennsylvania in 13 years.

Prosecutors characterized Williams as a serial killer, but the jurors never heard evidence of the years of horrific abuse he suffered from older men. Now, judges, prosecutors, child advocates, the jurors who found him guilty, and the widow of his victim all say his life should be spared. Moreover, over 345,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org calling for clemency for Williams. Such a viral show of support for a death row inmate has not been seen since Troy Davis a year ago this week.

Terry Williams’ case has exposed the inherent flaws in the administration of the death penalty, and has acted as a catalyst in the push for a death penalty moratorium in the Keystone state.

If the commonwealth makes good on its plans to kill Terry Williams by lethal injection, he would become the first non-volunteer execution since 1978. All three of those who were executed since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty waived their remaining appeals.

There is no question that Williams, then barely 18, killed Norwood, 56, with a tire iron, set him on fire and left him in a cemetery. At 17, he had killed Herbert Hamilton, 50, by cutting his throat with a knife, for which Williams received 27 years.

The jury in Williams’ capital murder case did not know that Norwood, a church leader, had sexually abused Williams from the age of 13, and had raped him until he bled the previous night. Williams’ lawyers failed to properly represent their client by taking the basic steps necessary for capital cases. His new attorneys argue that prosecutors knew about the abuse, but told Williams’ co-defendant, Marc Draper, to testify that robbery was the motive for the killing.

In fact, Williams’ first 18 years were a tragedy filled with traumatic abuse and no one to help him. He was brutally beaten by his mother and alcoholic stepfather with fists, belts, extension cords and switches. At age 6, he was raped by an older boy in the neighborhood, and came home bleeding and crying. In middle school he was repeatedly raped by his middle school teacher. When a robbery landed Terry in juvenile detention, he was gang raped by two older boys. Williams’ youth was one of exploitation by grown men who used him as a sexual object in exchange for clothes, money, food and other gifts.

Although he suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the violence he experienced, Terry received no mental health treatment or counseling. He resorted to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, and self-mutilation and suicide attempts to deal with his pain. And then he snapped, attacking two of his abusers.

Five of the jurors who sentenced Williams to death now say they did not know the victim was having sex with Williams, or that Williams was abused by other men. Had they been aware, they feel it would have influenced their decision. Further, a number of jurors say they want a life sentence for Terry rather than death. The jurors were not instructed that a life sentence means life without parole. Pennsylvania is the only state where such an instruction is not required.

“The reason that I opted for the death sentence was because I was under the impression that if we sentenced Terrance Williams to life in prison then he could get out on parole,” said one of the jurors. “If I had known that a life sentence meant life without parole, I personally would have voted for a life sentence, and I think other people probably would have voted for life too.”

Mamie Norwood, the widow of Amos Norwood, also wants to see Williams’ life spared. She says the execution would go against her Christian beliefs, and she has forgiven him.

Meanwhile, dozens of former judges and prosecutors, child advocates, law professors, mental health professionals and religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Philadelphia, have publicly demanded a commutation of Terry Williams’ death sentence. They join a host of human rights organizations and the European Union in calling for clemency.

The Williams case comes at a time when child abuse is front and center in the national consciousness, due in no small part to two high-profile sex abuse scandals in the Keystone state. Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach at Penn State University, was convicted of sexually abusing young boys. A scathing report from former FBI director Louis Freeh found that university officials failed to intervene and protect children.

And the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been under fire for providing cover to men of the cloth who abuse children. Recently, Monsignor William J. Lynn— the former secretary clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia— was found guilty of endangering children and protecting predatory priests from the law. He was sentenced to 3 to 6 years.

More importantly, there are serious problems with the implementation of the death penalty, leading citizens in Pennsylvania and around the country to debate whether there should be a moratorium on executions.

While death penalty proponents claim a death sentence is reserved for the worst criminals who commit the most egregious crimes, evidence of an irretrievably broken criminal justice system abounds.

With 216 people condemned to death, Pennsylvania has the fourth largest death row population in America, after California, Florida and Texas. Alabama is in fifth place. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 61% of death row inmates in the Keystone state are African-American, while only 30% are white and 8% Latino. Blacks are only 11% of Pennsylvania’s population, according to the 2010 census.

And 6 Pennsylvania inmates have been released from death row due to evidence of innocence — 140 across the nation.

A study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that pay for court-appointed criminal defense lawyers in Philadelphia is “grossly inadequate” and “unacceptably increases the risk of ineffective assistance of counsel in individual cases and is primarily responsible for the First Judicial District’s growing inability to attract a sufficient number of qualified attorneys willing to accept court appointments in capital cases.”

“Court appointed lawyers in Philadelphia rarely visit their clients much, seldom file motions on their behalf, and never use a jury questionnaire,” wrote Marc Bookman of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. “This is not a technical issue.  Death sentence after death sentence has been reversed based on the quality of legal defense in Philadelphia,” he added.

In light of these problems and the scheduled execution date, a bipartisan state Senate commission wrote a letter to Gov. Corbett calling for a postponement of all executions until it completes its study on the effectiveness of the death penalty.  The commission will release its findings, which will discuss the cost, fairness, proportionality and impact of the death penalty, in December 2013.

Meanwhile, on Monday the lawyers for Terry Williams will attempt to convince the Pennsylvania board of pardons that their client’s life should be spared. And on Thursday, a Philadelphia judge will hear testimony as to whether the D.A. withheld evidence of Williams’ sexual abuse from the jury

David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty. Follow David on Twitter at @davidalove