Pennsylvania to Execute 1st Person Since 1999

The state Board of Pardons rejected a bid for clemency from a convicted murderer who is scheduled to become the first person executed by Pennsylvania since 1999.
by | September 18, 2012

The state Board of Pardons on Monday rejected a bid for clemency from a convicted murderer who is scheduled to become the first person executed by Pennsylvania since 1999.

The case of Terrance Williams has mobilized supporters, who say a history of sexual abuse by several men -- including the man whose murder resulted in the death sentence -- is reason to stop the execution scheduled for Oct. 3. Separately, a Philadelphia judge has agreed to hear evidence on Thursday about the claims of sexual abuse.

Pennsylvania has not executed someone who contested a death sentence since 1962. After two hours of testimony Monday, three of the five members of the Board of Pardons, including Attorney General Linda Kelly, voted to recommend that Gov. Tom Corbett grant clemency.

But a unanimous decision is needed in cases with a sentence of death or life imprisonment, so the two opposing votes, including that of Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, meant the application was denied.

Williams, now 46, was convicted in 1986 of first-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy in the death of Amos Norwood in Philadelphia.

At the hearing on Monday, Shawn Nolan, a federal public defender, said clemency is warranted because Williams had been sexually abused from a young age by several men, including for years by Norwood.

Williams also was beaten by his mother and stepfather, Mr. Nolan said.

"Who is Terry Williams?" he said. "He is a man shaped by the horror of his childhood."

Williams is now is remorseful for his crimes, Mr. Nolan said. Mr. Nolan also asked the board to heed a statement by Norwood's widow that she did not want Williams put to death. And he cited statements by several jurors saying they would not have chosen the death penalty had they known of the claims of sexual abuse. Some also said they chose the death penalty because they thought a person sentenced to life could be paroled.

Tom Dolgenos, chief of the federal litigation unit at the Philadelphia district attorney's office, countered that the Norwood murder was the culmination of an escalating series of crimes by Williams. He said the board should consider that decades of litigation had failed to reverse the sentence. And he asserted that Williams has a record of lying to escape consequences, while also noting that claims of abuse were not raised until years after trial.

That delay, he said, was reason to be skeptical.

"The only way to grant clemency here is to accept the truth of these allegations," he said.

David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who spoke in support of clemency, told the board that it is typical for victims, especially men, to recount past sexual abuse in a piecemeal fashion over a period of time. Several supporters of clemency urged board members to consider the promises made to victims when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged and then convicted of child sexual abuse.

"Is it only some kids who get to be believed?" Mr. Lisak said. But Mr. Dolgenos asserted that those cases were different, in part because Williams has something to gain by making claims of abuse.

"He has every incentive now to allege them -- and to make them up if they didn't actually happen," Mr. Dolgenos said.

Proponents of clemency for Williams point to support from former judges and prosecutors as well as child advocates and others to argue the case is unique. An online petition seeking to stop the execution has more than 350,000 signatures, and the state's Catholic bishops had written in support of commuting the sentence to life in prison.

At the hearing Thursday in Philadelphia, attorneys for Williams will request a stay of execution based on the allegations of sexual abuse. Mr. Nolan said they will argue prosecutors had evidence of sexual abuse that they did not disclose to the defense. The judge's decision in the request can be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Two hundred people are on death row in Pennsylvania.

(c)2012 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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