Terrance Williams, and PA’s Justice System

by Mary Pappalardo, Writing Intern

The afternoon of September 28, a Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, ruled that the sentence that would put Terrance Williams, a 46-year-old convicted of two murders, to death would be stayed. The decision to stay the execution and have a new sentencing hearing came at the end of a long process, and on Wednesday October 3, the PA Supreme Court decided not to overturn the lower court’s order, in favor of a normal appeal process. This comes as a victory for supporters of Williams, but the case as a whole exposes some of the biggest problems facing the criminal justice system.

In 1984, just after turning 18, Terrance Williams met Amos Norwood at a Philadelphia cemetery, and along with his co-conspirator Marc Draper, robbed Norwood, beat him to death, and later burned his body. Williams was convicted in 1986 and was sentenced to death. He had since exhausted his federal and state appeals and on August 9 Governor Corbett signed his death warrant. Williams was set to be the first person executed in the state since 1999, and the first non-voluntary execution since 1962.

It seems, at first glance, like a rather cut and dry case. Williams committed a brutal murder, and was also found guilty of an earlier murder—when he was 17, Williams killed Herb Hamilton, though this was not the basis of his execution. Presented with these facts, the jury made the decision they thought best. The problem is in the fact that the jury was not presented with all the necessary evidence to rule fairly on the case. Since Williams’ conviction, it has come to light that Williams had been sexually abused—as a minor—by both men. Moreover, it seems likely that the prosecution willingly suppressed the evidence, and that the jury was intentionally misled.

With this new information, Williams’ defense pushed for clemency, citing statements from five trial jurors who said that had they known of the abuse, they would not have sentenced Williams to death. Three of five members of the board of pardons voted in his favor, but in Pennsylvania the decision for clemency must be a unanimous one, and so Williams’ execution was still set to proceed as scheduled, until Judge Sarmina’s decision.

Unless the state wins their formal appeal to the PA Supreme Court, Williams’ case will be reheard, and enter a new sentencing period, and it seems likely that he will be sentenced to life without parole, rather than death. This is a success on an individualized level in the sense that Williams won’t die unnecessarily, but the case exposes one of the bigger issues within the criminal justice system.

While Williams was a few months older than 18 at the time of the Norwood murder, his case brings up the question of sentencing minors convicted of major offenses. A PA Senate Bill (SB850) is being passed through the PA legislature currently, amending the current standards of sentencing. It states that in the case of first-degree murder, persons who were 15 or older at the time of the offense can be sentenced to life without parole or a minimum sentence of 35 years. This amendment is missing a huge opportunity to take life without parole off the table as an option for juveniles. A life without parole sentence goes against all that we know about juvenile development, and all that we believe about rehabilitation. By removing even the possibility of a second chance for someone who is only 15 years old, this law is neither age appropriate, nor sensible.

A PA House Bill that was introduced in 2009 (HB1994) offers up a potential solution to this problem. The bill would allow that juveniles convicted of crimes who were sentenced to serve a minimum term of no fewer than ten years, or who were sentenced to life imprisonment without parole and had served at least 10 years of their sentence, are subject to the jurisdiction of the parole board. The parole board, regardless of the sentence, can grant parole to these individuals, based on a set of criteria highlighted in the bill. These criteria are:

1)   The individual’s age and level of maturity at the time of the offense

2)   The individual’s degree of participation in the offense

3)   The nature of the offense

4)   The severity of the offense

5)   The individual’s prior juvenile or criminal history

6)   The likelihood of the individual to commit further offenses

7)   Other information considered relevant by the parole board

The bill would allow for retrospective evidence and information, like the history of the abuse in Williams’ case, to be taken into consideration.

This is not a perfect solution, though. While HB1994 gestures towards understanding juvenile cases on an individual level, and does not rule out the opportunity for rehabilitation, it also suggests that parole boards can circumvent the entire legal system, and reverse decisions that have been, presumably, made by a jury of peers. What is perhaps needed is a compromise, a system that demands the type of consideration that HB1994 grants to the parole board, but puts it instead into the hands of the sentencing court.