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Karen Heller: Brutal crimes, but the right sentence is life

As a child, Terrance Williams endured constant physical abuse and was sexually assaulted by both his victims, his defense argues, important evidence that was never presented at trial more than a quarter century ago. His legal representation was so shoddy and inept that he received the death penalty though he was barely an adult when he committed the crime.

As a child, Terrance Williams endured constant physical abuse and was sexually assaulted by both his victims, his defense argues, important evidence that was never presented at trial more than a quarter century ago. His legal representation was so shoddy and inept that he received the death penalty though he was barely an adult when he committed the crime.

Clemency is now supported by five former jurors, more than 360,000 petitioners, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, and the widow of one of the victims.

As a bright teenager, a hustler and thief, Terrance Williams committed two murders so brutal - the second victim beaten to death with a tire iron, then set on fire - that he should be executed, the prosecution contends. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams remains resolute in upholding capital sentencing. "The defendant has a long record of manipulative and malevolent behavior which eventually led to the deaths of two men," the D.A. stated, characterizing the recent abuse allegations as "a last-ditch effort" based, in some cases, on "triple hearsay."

Having exhausted all state and federal appeals, Williams, now 46, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Oct. 3. Last Monday, the pardons board voted 3-2 to stay the execution, the state attorney general voting with the majority. But that doesn't matter because, in yet another ponderous aspect of our justice system, a stay requires a unanimous vote.

Whatever the truth is in this case, and there's merit to both sides' arguments, Williams should not die at the hands of the commonwealth. If we condemn murder, we shouldn't impose it. Only 21 of almost 200 nations executed people last year, according to Amnesty International, the United States in the top five with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, countries we regularly denounce for human-rights violations.

No one is arguing that Williams be set free, only that he serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Enforcing the death penalty, which is law in 33 states, has become an expensive, exhausting, error-riddled, and futile practice.

The truth is that Pennsylvania condemns plenty of people to death, but rarely kills them. Williams is the state's first prisoner scheduled to be executed in 13 years but the first against his own will since the Kennedy administration. The last three inmates died at their own request or, as one court observer puts it, "suicide by the justice system."

Yet our courts are clogged with appeals relating to 125 of the 200 prisoners currently on death row, the fourth-highest death-penalty population in the nation.

Pennsylvania's reversal rate, cases sent back to court because of lousy defense lawyering, is unparalleled. (Williams met his attorney, who was subsequently disbarred, the week of trial.) That's due largely to the abysmal fees we pay defense lawyers, recently raised to a flat rate of $10,000 per death-penalty case, which, when done properly, requires countless hours of preparation.

Pennsylvania spends $46 million each year on legal costs and incarceration, the Death Penalty Information Center estimates, funds that could be so much better spent on education or law enforcement.

"It is important to note that all of these expenses are incurred in the many death-penalty cases that never result in execution," the center's executive director, Richard Dieter, testified in Harrisburg. "This often means that a life sentence is the end result, but only after a very expensive death-penalty process."

Marc Bookman of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation says: "The death penalty is a failed government program. We're spending very little in the beginning but a lot during the appeals process at the end, when the truth is it should be reversed."

True enough. On Thursday, I sat in Judge M. Teresa Sarmina's courtroom, which was packed with top attorneys for both sides, an Olympics of death-row hearings. The original prosecutor was grilled for seven hours about whether evidence that Williams had been raped by victim Otis Norwood was withheld in the original 1986 trial.

Without the death penalty, only life in prison without parole, no one would be there debating an ancient murder case. Instead, the hearing continues Monday with Williams' codefendant.

If Sarmina is unconvinced the evidence merits an emergency stay, defense lawyers will surely appeal.

Meanwhile, Williams remains scheduled to be executed in 10 days.

Karen Heller: In Currents

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