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Child Predators, Cheating Prosecutors and Terry Williams: How Pennsylvania Is Poised to Execute a Victim of Horrific Sexual Violence Despite the State’s Own Bad Acts

Tanya Greene,
Advocacy and Policy Counsel,
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September 25, 2012

Here we go again – but, wait, this is Pennsylvania, not Texas or Florida, which have been known to execute individuals despite evidence supporting innocence and/or horrifying trauma histories and major mental health and intellectual deficits. For the first time in more than a decade, Pennsylvania is planning an execution. Terry Williams is the first Pennsylvania death row prisoner scheduled to be involuntarily executed in 50 years in that northern state – it turns out it’s not just the South that denies people’s rights and kills them anyway.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons denied relief to Terry Williams, even after a majority of the Board, including the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, recommended to spare Terry’s life. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania requires a unanimous recommendation in favor of clemency in order for clemency to be considered by the Governor.

Last Monday, the Board of Pardons heard graphic evidence of Terry’s horrifying trauma history as a child and teen at the hands of numerous, much older, sexually-predatory men. Physical abuse by his mother and violated trust of older men in his life, including at least one schoolteacher, damaged Terry. However, the trial court and jury did not learn of this abuse from Terry’s trial lawyer, who met the teenager just the day before his capital trial almost three decades ago.

Ultimately, Terry killed two of his abusers, Herbert Hamilton and Amos Norwood. But contrary to the “innocent” stranger the prosecutor claimed Norwood was, law enforcement at the time of trial had extensive evidence of predatory and abusive acts against Terry by both Norwood and Hamilton.

At another hearing later last week, evidence, including the district attorney’s own hand-written notes, was presented proving that prosecutors knew about the sexually abusive relationship between Terry and Norwood, despite presenting the case as a robbery, not related to sexual abuse when seeking the death penalty from the jury.

Further, evidence has been shown that reveals an undisclosed deal for leniency for Terry’s co-defendant who testified against him, contrary to what Philadelphia District Attorney’s office representatives told the Board of Pardons just a few days earlier that week at the Board hearing. This outright misrepresentation influenced at least one Board member to vote against clemency.

What does society do when prosecutors withhold exculpatory and mitigating evidence that, as we see in this case, would have swayed not just one but five of the trial jurors to spare a traumatized teen’s life? Our government, of the people, for the people, by the people, cannot just turn a blind eye to the abuses suffered by Terry Williams at the hands of exploitative child abusers – especially in a state still reeling from the scandal of another trusted youth counselor, convicted serial child molester, Jerry Sandusky. Our government also cannot turn a blind eye toward the corruption of the prosecutors who have lied and cheated to put a teen on death row and who still insist that he should be killed anyway.

Terry Williams is very remorseful about the killings. Mamie Norwood, widow of Amos Norwood, has forgiven Terry and supports clemency for him. Terry has received an outpouring of letters of support of clemency from child advocates, more than a dozen former prosecutors, former judges, more than 50 clergy members and dozens of mental health professionals. More than 350,000 people have signed a petition supporting clemency. The Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, which is conducting a legislatively-mandated study of capital punishment in the state pursuant to a Senate resolution, set to be completed in 2013, has also requested the execution be stayed.

The Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence addressing how young people charged with crimes must be viewed differently because they are not fully developed speaks directly to this case. If a child who killed his tormenters because no one was able to protect him from them is not allowed an opportunity for rehabilitation and redemption, who is?

Take action! Ask Governor Corbett, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and the District Attorney’s Office to support clemency for Williams by clicking on Pennsylvania on this map.

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