The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office intentionally withheld critical evidence in 1986 when it prosecuted 18-year-old Terry Williams and won a death sentence. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Pennsylvania courts, putting the prosecution’s wrongdoing on display.
At Terry’s trial, the prosecution told the jury a story: at age 18, Terry had killed 56-year-old Amos Norwood for “no other reason” than to rob him. The prosecutors described Norwood as a kind man who volunteered at church. But they knew much more about Norwood than they let on. When they withheld that information from the defense and from the jury, they violated the law.
Terry had grown up in a terror-filled household, the victim of beatings by his mother and stepfather. He was six when an 11-year-old neighbor, someone he considered to be like a big brother, first lured him with promises of food — something that he often didn’t have at home — and then sexually assaulted him. Terry was repeatedly sexually abused and exploited by adults, including one of his middle school teachers.
Among Terry’s many abusers was Amos Norwood, who had begun sexually exploiting and physically abusing Terry when he was 13. The prosecutors had evidence of Norwood’s history of abusing young boys, including Terry, yet they hid it. The jury never heard evidence that Terry had snapped that night because Norwood had been sexually abusing him, violently. The prosecution also hid from the jury evidence that Norwood had sexually exploited other teenage boys for years. The jury voted for death. Had they known the truth, it would have made all the difference.
In fact, it had made the difference in Terry’s trial for killing Herbert Hamilton less than a year earlier. Hamilton was a 50-year-old man who had been sexually abusing Terry and other teenagers. But because that jury heard the evidence about Terry’s past and Hamilton’s abuse, they didn’t sentence Terry to death. He was convicted of third-degree murder. In the Norwood trial, the prosecution wasn’t going to let that happen again.
Despite that conviction, Terry’s death sentence case wound through the appeals process for more than 25 years. All the while, the prosecution insisted that it had no evidence of any illicit sexual activity by Norwood against Terry or others. The truth only came to light decades later, as Terry’s execution date neared and his new attorneys finally obtained access to the prosecution’s files. When Terry’s lawyers brought the suppressed evidence to the post-conviction court’s attention, it found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office had acted unconstitutionally in concealing this evidence from the defense. The court granted Terry a new sentencing trial.
The District Attorney’s Office appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Ronald Castille at the helm. Castille had formerly served as the longtime elected district attorney of Philadelphia and had authorized his staff to seek the death penalty against Terry. In campaigning for his seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Castille touted his record of obtaining a staggering 45 death sentences as Philadelphia’s district attorney, including Terry’s.
When Terry’s case reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, his attorneys urged Castille to recuse himself, due to his prior role in the case. He refused. Under Castille’s lead, the court reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated Terry’s death sentence. Then on June 9, in Williams v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that given his role as a former prosecutor in the case, Chief Justice Castille should have recused himself from considering Terry’s case. It was especially troubling to the court that Castille was presiding over a case that called into question the integrity of his former subordinates.
Read the ACLU amicus brief in support of Terry.
Unfortunately, the kind of prosecutorial misconduct that occurred in Terry’s case is far too common; it infects trials involving the most minor charges to the most serious. Only in capital cases, though, can prosecutorial misconduct kill.
We have seen too many narrow escapes from death sentences obtained by prosecutors willing to violate the Constitution in order to win. In Birmingham, Alabama, our client Montez Spradley was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Prosecutors and law enforcement officers never disclosed that they had paid their star witness in the case more than $10,000 for her testimony. Fortunately, after years of aggressive litigation, Montez regained his freedom. Yet through the end, prosecutors steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.
A few weeks ago, Texas prosecutors finally dropped murder charges against Kerry Max Cook, nearly 40 years after the crime took place. Kerry was convicted on the basis of false evidence that the prosecution concealed for years — misconduct a court found “egregious” and “pervasive.” As a result, Kerry served 20 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Even after dropping the charges against him at last, the prosecutors vowed to oppose Kerry’s efforts to prove his innocence and obtain the compensation to which he is entitled for his wrongful incarceration.
While exposing the prosecution’s wrongs eventually led to freedom for Montez and Kerry, many people, like Cameron Todd Willingham, have been executed despite strong evidence of innocence in a case involving prosecutorial misconduct. The Williams decision was a very small step on the path of holding prosecutors accountable for their wrongdoing, from a court that has all too often looked the other way in the face of egregious prosecutorial behavior. We must work to root out prosecutorial misconduct wherever it is in our justice system, but first, we must do away with its power to take a life. We must abolish capital punishment.
Death is too high a price to pay for a prosecutor’s hubris.