Atlantic Center for Capital Representation


View from the Atlantic Center

The Terry Williams Case in Retrospect - A Canary in the Coal Mine

In looking back over 2012, it seems a good time to revisit the case that now stands for everything wrong with the death penalty in Pennsylvania: Terry Williams. His tale, occurring under the shadow of imminent execution, involves a badly abused young man, an inept trial lawyer, an unscrupulous prosecutor, a District Attorney’s Office “Inspector Javert”-like in its single-minded pursuit of execution; and finally, a judge brave enough to uncover the truth, and tell the story fairly.

As in many death penalty horror stories, this one begins with an incompetent court-appointed defense attorney, who first met the 18-year-old Terry Williams on the literal eve of trial. Later disbarred, the lawyer had not even bothered to familiarize himself with his young client’s prior third degree murder conviction, and did not know that the victim in that case, as in the case wherein Mr. Williams received a death sentence, was a known sex abuser of young boys. Thus, when the prosecutor argued that two innocent men had been killed, and that Mr. Williams had no reason to commit such crimes, the defense attorney did not know enough to respond. Partly, of course, this was because he did not know the facts of his own client’s prior case. To a far greater extent, however, it was because the prosecutor had hidden crucial evidence from the defense.

Prosecutors are obligated by law and ethics to provide all information that in any way might be deemed exculpatory to the defense, either at trial or at sentencing. As it turned out, the lead prosecutor and the detectives who worked on the case knew very well that the victim had a long history of sexually abusing young boys; and they had good reason to think that he was sexually abusing the young Mr. Williams as well. But they violated the Constitution by hiding all the evidence about it. For starters, the assistant district attorney’s handwritten notes documented sexual allegations against the victim by other young boys – perhaps even more outrageously, full and detailed statements of the abuse were sanitized from witness statements before being provided to the defense. The scrupulous cleansing of the victim’s sexual proclivities with young boys from all police documents made it safe for the prosecutor to argue to the jury that the victim was an innocent man murdered for no reason at all. Safe, but completely untrue.

When the allegations did arise – just around the time Mr. Williams had lawyers who hadn’t been disbarred – the District Attorney’s Office, in appeal after appeal, ridiculed the claims. Rather than look through its own files, recognize that an injustice had been done, and take steps to rectify the error, the District Attorney himself claimed that the sex abuse had been made up by Mr. Williams to escape execution. Indeed, in the face of more than 350,000 signatures calling for clemency and a majority vote to spare the condemned man by a very conservative Pardons Board, the District Attorney accused Mr. Williams “of manipulative and malevolent behavior” and called his claims of molestation “a last ditch effort to escape punishment for his crime.” Given the overt fraud perpetrated by the prosecutor, this might fairly have been labeled enabling behavior by the District Attorney.

Thankfully, the story did not end there, though in many courtrooms it would have. Indeed, Mr. Williams’s story could not have been told were it not for the events that occurred in Courtroom 507 of the Criminal Justice Center and the judge who presided there. Earlier we referred to her as brave, but that’s only in comparison – in reality, she was doing what all judges should do, which was to make absolutely certain that the process was as fair as human beings could make it. She ordered the District Attorney and police files to be turned over to the defense; and then she found as a fact that the prosecutor was incredible in her explanation of the hidden material, that the Commonwealth had perpetrated a fraud on the jury, and that a new and fair sentencing was mandated.  Judge Sarmina’s Opinion

In retrospect, justice seems so obvious in the Terry Williams case: a young man, barely eighteen and sexually abused his entire life; a disbarred lawyer who hadn’t seen his client and hadn’t investigated his case; a victim who had sexually molested Terry Williams and many other young men. But mix in other ingredients: a prosecutor who wanted to win so badly that she hid compelling evidence, a District Attorney blind to his own office’s misdeeds, a police department that rewrote its own statements to protect the reputation of a dead victim over a live defendant. It is reasonable to think that we might learn from the Terry Williams case, and it is necessary that we do so. But only time will tell if we will.

Akeem Davis