The emotional debate over use of the death penalty in the United States is being played out again, this time in a Pennsylvania courtroom, as attorneys for a man scheduled to die by lethal injection on October 3 get one more chance on Thursday to save his life.
Defense attorneys claim convicted murderer Terrance Williams, 46, suffered years of violent sexual abuse at the hands of Amos Norwood, a church youth leader he murdered in 1984.
“The jury that sentenced Terry to death never heard that he was sexually abused or that Mr. Norwood sexually exploited Terry,” said attorneys for Williams, in a petition for clemency that was backed by thousands of supporters including Norwood’s widow. “Five jurors have given sworn statements that if they had heard about Terry’s sexual abuse history, they would not have voted for death.”
In a split decision the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons denied Williams’ petition on Monday.
Williams is also serving a life term for killing another man in 1984. Williams was 17 when he murdered 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, who allegedly abused Williams as well.
On Thursday – in a proceeding that may offer the best remaining chance to spare Williams’ life – a judge will hear what defense attorneys say is evidence of abuse and a secret deal with a key witness that they claim prosecutors withheld from the defense and the jury at Williams’ first trial.
District Attorney Seth Williams is not convinced the abuse ever happened.
“The defendant has a long record of manipulative and malevolent behavior,” he said in a statement. “Now as a last ditch effort to escape punishment for his crime, Williams is claiming he was raped by Amos Norwood the night before he killed Mr. Norwood. In the 28 years since the murder… not once has Williams actually testified under oath about all the abuse he allegedly suffered.”
The crime was particularly brutal. Norwood, 56, was lured to a remote location where Williams and a co-defendant took his cash and credit cards, removed his clothing, tied his hands and feet, beat him to death with a tire iron and socket wrench, and set his body on fire.
But in a state that has seen several recent high-profile cases of child sex abuse that went undetected for years, including the Penn State University sex abuse case, evidence of molestation and rape that allegedly began when Williams was six-years-old has prompted outrage and a cry for mercy in this case.
Experts say it exemplifies many other death penalty cases in the U.S., in which those who are sentenced to die are often poor minorities with histories of abuse and poor representation at trial.
“I think the U.S. is in flux on the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), which compiles statistics on the death penalty. “We used to think we needed it, that crime would grow rampant if we didn’t have it. But the outcomes are not that you get the worst people and the most egregious crimes in the state. These things are just chance, and it has nothing to do with who’s the worst of the worst.”
In fact he says, if Terrance Williams had lived elsewhere in Pennsylvania, he might not have been sentenced to death at all. DPIC statistics show half the death row cases in the state come from Philadelphia, where Williams lived, even though the city represents only 14 percent of the state’s population. The figures also show nearly 70 percent of the state’s death row inmates are black, as is Williams.
A 2011 Gallup poll found U.S. support for the death penalty at its lowest point since 1972. Five states in the last five years have abolished the death penalty in the U.S. A referendum on the ballot in California this November may do away with the death penalty there and commute the sentences of death row inmates to life in prison.
“The U.S. may get rid of it not so much out of human rights issues, but it’s just not working,” said Dieter. “It’s the arbitrariness.”
The current trend is not likely to impact the Terrance Williams case. The prosecutor contends that after 28 years of legal wrangling, an exhaustive list of court proceedings have all upheld his sentence. Defense attorneys still hope the mitigating details of the case are enough to turn it around in time to save him from execution.