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.