If This is the Best They Can Do: The Tragedy of Terry Williams
Andrew Cohen has an amazing piece in the Atlantic about Terry Williams, the latest horrendous death penalty case that is winding its way towards an execution in Pennsylvania. Despite a lustful desire to kill someone from the state’s machinery of death, the state hasn’t executed anyone who had not given up fighting it since before the Supreme Court temporarily halted the death penalty in 1976.
Williams suffered years of sexual abuse and violence from an early age. Cohen rightly calls it a horrific life.
When he was 17, Terry Williams snapped. On January 26, 1984, when a man named Herbert Hamilton tried to sexually assault him, when the older man plied the teenager with gifts and then tried to rape him, Williams finally fought back. Hamilton stabbed Williams. Williams stabbed back, 20 times the autopsy revealed, until and after Hamilton was dead. Prosecutors portrayed the crime as a homosexual love affair gone wrong. In 1985, a jury convicted Williams of third-degree murder and a judge sentenced him to 10 to 20 years in state prison.
While Williams isn’t on death row today because of the Hamilton case that case is instructive in establishing a pattern of behavior on the part of Williams during that period in his life. A few months after Williams murdered Hamilton, a few months after the young man turned 18, he murdered another sexual predator, another one of the reported child rapists into whose realm he had wandered, another man who he says had violently assaulted him, a man named Amos Norwood, leader of the acolytes at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.
Norwood plied Wiliams the same way the others had. The more violent the sexual predator became during his repeated rapes the more money he would give Williams. On June 10, 1984, Norwood took Williams to an unlit parking lot and raped him until he bled. The next day, June 11, 1984, Williams brutally murdered Norwood with a tire iron, the culmination of an attack Williams’ doctor later attributed to his years of abuse. This time, following a brief 1986 trial, a jury convicted Williams of first-degree murder. This time, he was sentenced to death.
That’s background is precisely the sort of thing that is supposed to be taken into account at the penalty phase of a trial, when the question of the death penalty is considered. But it was never even investigated, and the state cut a deal with Williams co-defendent for his testimony that offered an entirely different story of an unprovoked killing (that he’s since recanted.)
It’s not just those of us, like me, that oppose any executions that think this case is a travesty.
This is so despite the fact that the widow of Williams’ victim now believes that his sentence should be commuted to life. It is so despite the fact that eight former judges — federal and state — now believe his trial was unjust. It is so despite the pleas of 28 former prosecutors — federal, state and local — who have gone on the record saying that justice would be served by clemency. It is so despite the fact that five of Williams’ trial jurors have come forward and declared, under oath, that they never would have recommended a death sentence for him had they known of material facts his defense attorneys did not introduce at trial.
Read the whole thing. It’s beautiful and disturbing. But here’s my question. The state wants to kill someone. And yet here they choose an absolutely devastating case, one that demonstrates everything wrong with the system (except a valid innocence claim, which are also fairly common), one that involves a youth victim of sexual assault (after the state’s failure to stop Sandusky), one that is so bad it’s generating opposition from all sorts of people who strongly support the death penalty in the abstract. Wouldn’t they choose a case that show cases the best fact pattern imaginable for the pro-death position? But if you are at all familiar with the death penalty in the United States, you’d know that no such case exists. Support for the death penalty rests on a fantasy of those who grew up in nice homes and are not crazy who go on killing sprees, who hire the best legal team, and on and on. But it is just a fantasy. Pennsylvania knows this, which is why they alone won’t even tell their juries that life without parole is an alternative to the death penalty.
The system as it actually exists cannot be defended. That seems like reason enough to end it.
[Update] Cohen has a follow up piece noting that the state pardons board voted in favor of clemency, 3-2, but state law require a unanimous vote. As he notes, the board members do not offer reasons for their votes, but the prosecutors’ brief opposing it tells much of the story. There’s a great deal to be outraged by, but this is particularly disturbing.
The brief also tells us that some of the same state officials who came late to the Sandusky scandal, reassuring their mortified constituents that they are sensitive to the difficulties in reporting child sex abuse, have cynically turned that argument around in Williams’ case. He didn’t come forward, either, for many years, to report the ways in which he was being raped by older men, including older men in positions of power and trust. And now, say these politicians and bureaucrats, it’s too late for Williams to bring it up; too late even though his life is on the line.