Despite ties, PA chief justice stays on death case

PHILADELPHIA - October 2, 2012

Terrance "Terry" Williams could face lethal injection if the state Supreme Court reverses the lower-court decision before his death warrant expires at midnight Wednesday.

Williams, 46, is on death row for killing two men in his teens. Williams now says both men had sexually abused him. And a Philadelphia judge last week found evidence to support the claim in old police and prosecution files that were never turned over to the defense.

Philadelphia prosecutors appealed her Friday ruling to the state Supreme Court, but it's not yet clear when or if the high court will act.

Williams' lawyers want Chief Justice Ronald Castille to recuse himself from the case, because he was the top prosecutor when Williams was tried. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina found that his staff hid evidence from the defense and jury, and had a secret side deal with an accomplice who testified against Williams.

Castille filed notice on Monday that he won't step down. He does not plan to comment on the issue, a court spokesman said.

Williams' lawyers accuse Castille of a clear conflict of interest. And they said he has shown antagonism toward the Federal Public Defenders Office in denying recusal motions in some of the 45 other death penalty cases he oversaw as Philadelphia's district attorney.

"As district attorney, he wrote a note approving that his staff seek the death penalty against Terry," said Shawn Nolan, assistant chief of the defenders' capital habeus unit. "We thought recusal was a reasonable request under these circumstances. Justice Castille disagreed."

Williams would be the first person executed in Pennsylvania in 50 years who had not abandoned his appeals.

A flurry of activity is expected in Williams' case before the Wednesday deadline.

The state Supreme Court could take the case under advisement, rule on the appeal or schedule arguments before or after the deadline.

Williams' lawyers, meanwhile, could include the new evidence in an eleventh-hour plea to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year rejected Williams' appeal.

Williams is on death row for killing two men by age 18. He now says the 56-year-old church deacon and 50-year-old sports booster had been sexually abusing him. He has acknowledged that older men were paying him for sex as a teen.

A Philadelphia jury sentenced Williams to death in 1986 for fatally beating the deacon, Amos Norwood, in a cemetery two years earlier. Jurors heard only that the motive was robbery. Williams and an accomplice were caught after using a credit card they'd taken from the victim.

However, the accomplice, Marc Draper, testified last week that he told police and the trial prosecutor that Norwood and Williams had a sexual relationship. He said they didn't want to hear it, and told him to stick to the robbery motive at trial.

Sarmina vacated Williams' death sentence on Friday, five days before the scheduled execution, and ordered a new sentencing hearing. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams filed an appeal by day's end. He said the death penalty should be rare, but he believes it is justified in Williams' case.

There are currently about 200 people on Pennsylvania's death row. Only three people have been executed since the death penalty was restored in 1978.

Norwood's widow and five jurors are among those who have signed petitions to spare Williams' life. The jurors said they would have voted for a life sentence had they known of the alleged abuse and understood that a life sentence means life in Pennsylvania. Lifers never have a chance for parole, but juries do not have to be told that.

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