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.

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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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