A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Execution

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On Friday, on strong evidence of prosecutorial malfeasance, a judge vacated Terrance Williams's death sentence. But his prosecutor is still pushing for it.

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Seth Williams, Terrance Williams' prosecutor, speaks at a news conference in July. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Twenty-six years after the fact, too late but just in time, a measure of justice finally found Terry Williams on Friday when a Pennsylvania judge, a former prosecutor, stayed his October 3 execution and vacated a death sentence that had been unfairly imposed upon him in 1986. No reasonable review of Williams' case -- no evaluation of the evidence, no respect for his trial jurors or the victim's widow, no fealty to the Sixth Amendment's fair trial guarantees -- can sustain, in law or fact, the imposition of capital punishment here.

And yet today, seeking to defend an indefensible verdict, unapologetic about the misconduct of his predecessor, impervious to the dynamics of child sex abuse cases, tone-deaf to local politics and morality in the Age of Sandusky, unrepentant about misstatements to the state's parole board, Williams' prosecutor pushes on. I have been covering capital cases like this for 15 years and I can rarely remember an instance where a district attorney fought so willfully for so long for the right to do an injustice. It's a risible offense.

In 1984, Williams savagely murdered a man named Amos Norwood. No one disputes that. At Williams' 1986 trial, however, prosecutors had evidence that Norwood was a sexual predator -- a man who preyed upon boys, including Williams himself. But prosecutors did not disclose this evidence to Williams' lawyers even though they have an obligation to do so under the United States Supreme Court's Brady v. Maryland precedent. Instead, the district attorney portrayed Norwood as an innocent victim of Williams' evil mind. The state cheated.

Why didn't Williams himself disclose this to his lawyers back then? Why didn't he come out and describe how Norwood had savagely raped him the day before the murder, how he had come home that day bleeding into his underwear? One reason could be that Williams was not introduced to his defense attorney until the day before his capital trial. Imagine those circumstances. Put yourself in his shoes, with all we know today about the fear and shame child sex victims feel following the crimes against them.

Unsurprisingly, Williams' jurors quickly convicted him and recommended a sentence of death. They found no mitigating circumstances that would justify sparing Williams' life. And why would they? Why wouldn't they believe the prosecutor? It was only years later, when Williams finally came forward and disclosed that Norwood had brutally raped him, that the narrative changed. And even then, prosecutors still didn't come clean. Instead, they claimed -- they still claim -- that Williams is making it all up. Prosecutors blame a child sex assault victim for not timely reporting his abuse.

Prosecutors take this position today even though three of Williams' jurors came forward and swore, under oath, that they never would have recommended a death sentence against him had they known about Norwood's predatory behavior. Two other jurors said they never would have voted for death had they known that life without parole was a sentencing option available in the case. (Pennsylvania does not require judges to candidly disclose this sentencing option to jurors.) All it would have taken to have spared Williams' life in 1986 was one of those jurors.

Prosecutors today push for Williams' execution even after Norwood's widow came forward and said the defendant was worthy of forgiveness. On the eve of Williams' parole hearing earlier this month, defense attorneys reported, detectives came to the elderly woman's house to try to get her to change her mind. Prosecutors even defend the original verdict even after sex assault victims' groups issued a poignant letter explaining why child sex assault victims, like Williams, often don't report abuse until many years later.

On Friday, after hearing from witnesses, including the old prosecutor who cheated at Williams' trial, Pennsylvania Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said enough was enough. She recounted the sins of omission and commission Pennsylvania officials performed in their zeal to send Williams to death row. And then she succinctly framed the case:

Had the suppressed evidence been disclosed and a complete picture presented to defense counsel, a reasonable attorney would have had the information needed to make a compelling argument as to mitigation.

Supreme Court precedent demands nothing more. In fact, this case is a classic instance of official misconduct contemplated by the justices in Brady and beyond -- a case where prosecutors and police, in custody and control of an investigation, either fail to share with defense counsel information that would help the defense or purposely alter what they share with the defense in order to portray the defendant in a worse light. Sadly, this happens all the time in criminal cases in America. Prosecutors violate the law and their own ethics to win.

Here is the transcript to Judge Sarmina's ruling. From it, two things are clear. First, she is not a judge looking for a reason to cut Williams a break -- she rejected most of the arguments her current lawyers have made, including some arguments which I believe had merit. Second, her depiction of the prosecutorial misconduct at Williams' trial, the misconduct the current prosecutor now seeks to justify, is gut-wrenching. Look at how far officers of the court were willing to go, in the pursuit of what they call justice, to get the result they wanted.

If that were all to this story it would be bad enough. Terry Williams has spent all this time on death row without a fair and accurate sentencing phase of his trial. He is days away from execution -- and still may be executed. But there is more. Instead of accepting Judge Sarmina's reasoned judgment, instead of acknowledging that defendants like Williams are entitled to a meaningful remedy when the state cheats at trial, instead of preparing for a new sentencing hearing which would include all the relevant evidence, Williams' current prosecutor doubled down.

Late Friday, Seth Williams (obviously no relation) issued a statement that beggars belief. In Seth Williams' world, the prosecutor who cheated in 1986 in a capital case has been "unfairly victimized." In this world, he is obliged to "preserve the integrity of the jury's verdict and sentence" even though nearly half of that jury has walked away from its work. What "integrity" is left to protect about an inaccurate sentence? Seth Williams didn't say. But he was sure to tell the world that he doesn't want to make a villain out of the victim, Amos Norwood, the child sex predator.

None of this excuses what Terry Williams did. But it sure explains it, doesn't it? And isn't that the essence of what the sentencing phase of a capital trial should be about? Terry Williams is not getting away with anything, he's not cheating anyone, and that's never been the point of this round of appeals. If he is not executed, he will spend the rest of his life in prison, which is the sentence he almost certainly would have gotten in 1986 had prosecutors played by the rules, had jurors been given all the relevant evidence, and had a capital defendant been given adequate counsel.

But even this is not good enough for prosecutor Williams. He immediately appealed Judge Sarmina's ruling. Want to know why more and more Americans are skeptical of the death penalty, why the constitutional guarantees of due process and fair trials so often go unmet? It's because of cases like this one, where prosecutors cheat at trial and where their successors, decades later, cannot then admit, to themselves or the world, that such behavior undercuts confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the criminal justice system.

In his statement, his angry manifesto about a ruling that seeks to right a wrong, prosecutor Williams says he wants to have a debate about the death penalty so long as brutal murderers like Terry Williams aren't "offered" what they don't deserve. What Terrence Williams deserved, what anyone and everyone deserves, is a fair trial, an honest prosecutor, and meaningful access to exculpatory evidence. If Seth Williams doesn't understand this, or if he cannot accept this, he should find another line of work. And if he wants to defend the death penalty he should find another case.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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