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Posts Tagged ‘Andrew Cohen

If This is the Best They Can Do: The Tragedy of Terry Williams

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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.

Written by David Kaib

September 18, 2012 at 11:34 pm

This isn’t like Jim Crow, it is Jim Crow: Disenfranchisment in the Twenty-First Century

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One problem with our general ignorance of history is that you can end up thinking developments are different from the past when they aren’t. I was reminded of this while reading Andrew Cohen’s excellent piece on the disenfranchisement in South Carolina.

On Wednesday morning, [Judge] Beeney questioned Andino [a South Carolina election official] about the status of registered voters who come to vote on Election Day without the new form of photo identification required by the new law. Those registered voters may be permitted — the emphasis is on the word “may” because local officials seem to have a great deal of discretion to make that call — to cast a provisional ballot if they state they had a “reasonable impediment” to getting the new identification cards.

Those provisional ballots, in turn, may then be challenged (by anyone) on the basis that the provisional voter didn’t have a “reasonable impediment” after all. The challenges are heard and resolved on the Friday following the election — one day in advance of the “certification” of the election results that occurs on Saturday. Andino testified that South Carolina notifies provisional voters of this hearing by mail between Tuesday’s election and Friday (which doesn’t leave much time for the postman, does it?).

A provisional voter isn’t told that his or her vote has been challenged. The provisional voter is simply told there will be a hearing. So if that voter wants to defend his or her “reasonable impediment” declaration, the voter has to go to the county seat on the Friday following the election to make sure that his or her vote will be counted. Of course, a lack of transportation, public or otherwise, is likely to have been one of the biggest reasons why that voter could not get his or her new identification in the first place.

It gets worse when he quotes the testimony.

This isn’t like Jim Crow. It is Jim Crow. We tend to think about the explicit racial classifications that drove school segregation as the heart of Jim Crow.  The dramatic Brown decision distorted our view of what Jim Crow was really about.  But in reality, the bigger issue, the one that the 14th and 15th Amendments were designed to address, was this: officials given power to act at their discretion, private individuals empowered to act under color of law, claims of fraud by poor African-Americans being used to commit fraud—defrauding people of their rights and cheating to win elections.  Because of the 15th Amendment, states were not allowed to use race explicitly to deny the right to vote. So they used these very tools to achieve the same ends through allegedly race neutral means. Read the whole piece and tell me: does this sound like to effort to protect the ballot box, or is it an assault on it?

[Update] Just so there’s no confusion, here’s my position – the laws of every state are too restrictive when it comes to democratic rights.  Every citizen over the age of 18 (at least) should have the right to vote.  No rule which makes voting more difficult or more costly should be allowed.  There should be a voting holiday, and absentee ballots should be freely available for any reason.  If a state is going to require registration, it should shoulder all of the burden of making sure all eligible voters are signed up and of enforcement.  Individuals and non-government organizations should have no role in enforcement or registering.  There should be paper ballots only.  No one should be allowed to both administer elections and take part in the campaigns they oversee.  The rules should be drastically simplified and clarified (thereby drastically reducing the role of lawyers).  Attempts to convince people to vote on the wrong day, wrong place or the like should be treated as serious crimes.  (And political parties should connect with voters directly which would allow them to communicate without the filter of the media and would make dirty tricks far less effective.  This would also reduce the importance of money and ads in campaigns, and empower voters).  The status quo is unacceptable, even without these new laws.

[Update 2] I left out an important part of the problematic status quo – the exclusion of DC from representation in Congress, as well as all the overseas possessions like Puerto Rico.  None of this can be justified by a real, small d democrat.

Written by David Kaib

August 31, 2012 at 2:08 pm

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