Terry Williams's death sentence is the product of prosecutorial misconduct, a judge's conflict of interest, and a life of sexual abuse. On Monday, the US Supreme Court hears his story.
On January 26, 1984, Terrance "Terry" Williams bludgeoned and stabbed 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton to death. Williams poured kerosene on the body, tried to set it on fire, and fled the crime scene. Police would later discover a stash of photos Hamilton had taken of teenage boys performing sexual acts, and multiple young men came forward with stories about being sexually abused by Hamilton, who was said to prey on adolescents, deal them drugs, and force them to have sex.
But killing Hamilton isn't what sent Terry Williams to death row.
On June 11 of the same year, Williams, now 18, beat 56-year-old Amos Norwood to death with a tire iron in a Philadelphia cemetery. He then took the man's money, credit cards and car, and set the corpse on fire.
Both of the older men were sexually abusing Williams, who has since described a childhood defined by violence both in and outside the home.
The teen was apprehended that July, and in separate trials, the same Philadelphia assistant district attorney prosecuted him for both murders. For Hamilton's killing, Williams got 27 years. For Norwood's killing, which prosecutors falsely portrayed as the brutal robbery of a stranger, Williams was sentenced to death.
What the prosecution kept from the jury is significant enough that five of the jurors from the original trial have signed statements saying they wouldn't have voted for a death sentence had they known then what they do now.
On Monday, the United States Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in Williams's appeal to vacate that death sentence in what might be the last chance for the killer—and victim—to receive the justice that has eluded him for three decades.
Both murders are clearly about a young man who killed his sexual abuser. What made the outcomes of the two trials so different were the actions of the prosecution: In the second trial, the prosecutor chose to conceal Williams's true motives, according to his defenders and multiple judges, as well as evidence from the DA's office.
Assistant District Attorney Andrea Foulkes insisted the cemetery attack was a robbery motivated by greed, pure and simple. In her telling, Norwood was acting as a Good Samaritan who offered a ride to Williams—a total stranger. The crime was so heinous that Foulkes asked for the death penalty. The jury went for it.
But thanks to evidence that surfaced in 2012, we know the police and DA were well aware the middle-aged man and the teenager knew each other intimately.
A rector at St. Philip's Episcopal Church, where Norwood had been a youth volunteer, told police back in 1984 that a parishioner had reported Norwood "propositioned" her teenage son "for sex." Norwood's widow even told the police about her husband's strange relationship with young men. Foulkes's handwritten 1984 interview notes refer to the complaint against Norwood as well as "other possible incidents," including a teenage boy whom Norwood "touched on privates."
Meanwhile, Foulkes wrote down that Norwood was one of "Terry's Johns." And she called the police unit investigating the murder "the faggot squad." Those notes remained unseen until 2012, with the Philadelphia DA keeping them hidden even after a judge explicitly asked if the state had any evidence suggesting Norwood's "homosexuality."
Even the prosecution's own star witness, Williams's friend Marc Draper, who was with him the night of Norwood's murder, told Foulkes that Williams and Norwood knew each other. But as Draper finally revealed years later, she pressured him into testifying that the two were strangers.
When Williams's lawyers argue in front of the Supreme Court Monday, they will be able to point to this and other pieces of key evidence the prosecution concealed in the trial, which painted Williams as a senseless killer.
But the focus of Williams's attorney Shawn Nolan and his co-counsel will be on more recent alleged ethical and legal violations: namely, the failure of State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille to recuse himself from the appeal of the death sentence, even though he had overseen the prosecution—and personally approved the death sentence request as the Philadelphia DA.
It's hard to overstate the importance of this case for those who believe in a criminal justice system founded on judicial impartiality. Among those who have filed amicus briefs supporting Williams are 16 former prosecutors and seven former appellate judges, including Kenneth Starr, the lawyer made famous by the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the 1990s.
The psychological and physical abuse Williams endured began at home. On one occasion, his mother, Patricia Kemp, chased and pushed him down a flight of stairs in front of teachers and students. Another time, she beat him in front of his teachers so severely that the faculty members promised Williams they would stop contacting her.
Williams's mother beat all three of her children regularly—sometimes with extension cords, according to neighbors and friends. She even poured boiling water over her toddler-aged daughter, sending her to the hospital.
After both of his older siblings joined the Air Force to escape the violence, Williams was left alone to witness the violent fights between his mother and stepfather, Ernest Kemp—and endure his own abuse.
The Kemps routinely beat each other with baseball bats, Williams claimed. Ernest once allegedly leveled a gun at his wife's face and then Williams's face, threatening to kill them both, and cracked Patricia's skull with a lead blackjack. She, in turn, was said to hit Ernest in the head with a frozen steak, knocking out two of his teeth.
Williams's physical and mental abuse in his own house was followed by sexual abuse in the community—which is no surprise given that children who suffer early psychological and physical abuse endure higher rates of sexual victimization later in life.
Dr. David Lisak, a nationally-known forensic psychologist, spoke with Terry Williams at length and reviewed over 70 interviews, sworn statements, and medical documents from friends, family, teachers, psychologists, and medical professionals.
"His mother brutally abused him, both physically and emotionally, and so damaged (him) that he desperately sought the attention and approval of an older male, someone who could replace the father he never knew," Lisak wrote in a report on Williams. "His desperate need was a vulnerability that drew sexual predators to him."
When Williams was six, he has said, an 11-year-old boy in his neighborhood invited him home, made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and raped him. When Williams was in middle school, he claimed, a teacher showed him special attention, buying Williams and his mother groceries, plying him with gifts, and inviting him to his home, where he raped him on repeated occasions.
Williams was 13, he told Dr. Lisak, when he met Amos Norwood, a chemist and church deacon, at a deli. Norwood invited him to hang out, took him to bars, and soon started pressing him for sex, rewarding the boy with gifts and cash. Sometimes, against his protests, Williams reported, Norwood would hit him with whips or belts and penetrate him violently, without lubrication. Later, Norwood would be contrite, and he would pay Williams extra to make up for the pain he'd caused. Williams recalled to Dr. Lisak meeting Norwood for sex the night before the murder at an abandoned parking lot.
"I took my pants off... He made me lean against his car, and he penetrated me from behind. This night he was rough in penetrating me. He didn't use any Vaseline. I felt hurt and mad because he was rough with me that night. He forced himself into me. I told him to stop. He kept on. I was clenching my anus so tight trying to stop him, but he wouldn't stop, and it hurt so bad I screamed."
Like the district attorney's notes about his abuse, Williams's story remained hidden long after he was sent to death row. It wasn't until 1996, when Shawn Nolan and colleagues from the Federal Defender's Capital Habeas Unit came on board, that Terry Williams began to reveal the traumas of his young life.
For the first time, he had a capable defense team.
Williams's original counsel, Nicholas Panarella, who would later be suspended over his role in a wire fraud scheme, had waited a year and a half after his court appointment to the capital case to meet his client. Incredibly, Panarella visited Williams for the first time the day before jury selection—and 18 months after taking on the case. They ultimately settled on the implausible defense that Williams neither knew nor killed Amos Norwood despite overwhelming physical evidence and the testimony of an eyewitness. Prosecutors would later use Williams's claims of innocence to argue he dug his own grave.
Once they were on the case, Nolan and his team tracked down other young men who claimed they'd been abused or propositioned by Norwood. Interviewing people from the church, the attorneys found their way to a man named Ronald House, who swore in an affidavit that Norwood had tried to have sex with him when he was 16 or 17. When he told his mother, she informed the church rector. When he did nothing about it, House and his mother left the church.
The attorneys used this new evidence, as well as Williams's obviously ineffective counsel, to fight for a new sentencing trial. But for four years, the DA's office fought them every step of the way. The state insisted there was no evidence of any abuse and dismissed the new claims as "gossip."
A federal judge—the same one who asked if the state had anything showing Williams was gay and was told it did not—ruled in 1998 that the original counsel had been ineffective, but accepted the state's argument that since no reliable evidence of abuse existed, Williams would have been sentenced to death even if he'd had a competent attorney.
(Andrea Foulkes told me by phone it "wouldn't be appropriate" to discuss an open case. A spokesman for incumbent Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams told me he couldn't comment, but the office had released statements to the media.)
When I spoke to Nolan last spring, he described the "last ditch effort" he and co-counsel made in January 2012, when appeals had been exhausted and an execution date had been set for that October. They reached out again to the key trial witness against Williams, Marc Draper.
Draper had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and been sentenced to life in prison without parole. Realizing that the clock was ticking—and having "found God," as he told Nolan—Draper agreed to talk. Not only did he confirm the sexual relationship, but Draper also accused the DA's office of coercing his original testimony to match its theory. Draper signed an affidavit saying he had told investigators, "Norwood was a homosexual and that he was in a relationship with Terry and that that is what this case is really about." The prosecution, he added, "did not want to hear that. They wanted the motive to be a robbery and kept coming back to that. That's how they wanted me to testify. That it was a robbery."
Draper explained in the affidavit that Foulkes threatened to pursue the death penalty unless he testified that the murder was a robbery. To sweeten the deal, Draper said, she promised to only charge him with second-degree murder and write a letter of recommendation to the parole board. But during the initial trial, when Draper was asked if he had made any deals with the DA's office, he said no. And Foulkes didn't correct him.
It was Draper's revelation that convinced Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina to grant Williams an emergency evidentiary hearing for September 20, 2012, two weeks before he was set to be killed. During the three-day hearing, Sarmina ordered the DA's office, over its objections, to retrieve the trial files from storage for review.
The contents of the boxes were astonishing.
"I was like, Oh my God! Look at this," Nolan told me. "This totally corroborate[d] what we ha[d] been pleading all along." The DA's claim in post-conviction hearings that Williams was lying about being abused by Norwood was "totally false" and "outrageous." In fact, the files proved that they all knew better, Nolan argues.
Therefore, it is proper for you to consider the cooperation of this inmate when determining his eligibility for parole or commutation at some future date. That I provide you with the particulars of Mr. Draper's cooperation was the only benefit or promise conveyed to him in exchange for his complete truthful cooperation. I hope this information will be useful in your evaluations.
Among the other evidence that damns the prosecution is the police report of an interview with Reverend Charles Poindexter, the rector at St. Philip's Episcopal, where Norwood volunteered. The summary reads that Poindexter "related in confidence that deceased may have been a homosexual, and that he in fact had received a complaint about five years ago from the mother of a 17-year-old parishioner that deceased had propositioned the 17-year-old for sex, (male)." This, of course, corroborated the claims made by Ronald House. But it wasn't seen until 2012; when the Poindexter interview was handed over to the defense during the 1986 trial, that portion was omitted.
Also in the DA's boxes was the original version of the police activity sheet of an interview with Norwood's widow, Mamie. She described one night when her husband woke her up at 2 AM to ask for money. She noticed a "young, slim male" standing silently in the hallway. Her husband loaded his car full of stereo equipment, drove off with the young man and returned the next day, telling her a "rambling" story in which he was "abducted" but able to "escape" after using "psychology" on his kidnappers. He refused to call the police and begged his wife not to. Again, this section was omitted from the police interview summaries Foulkes handed over to the defense.
One of Foulkes's own handwritten pre-trial notes—also not seen until 2012— described Norwood as one of "Terry's Johns." Another note referred to another young man who was "touched on privates" as well as "other incidents." Her notes also mentioned the church rector's account of a mother, presumably that of Ronald House, complaining that Norwood had propositioned her son. And she really did refer to the police unit investigating the case as the "faggot squad."
During the 2012 hearing, Foulkes admitted to Judge Sarmina that the handwriting was hers, but insisted, despite her own notes, that she had found no credible motive for the murder other than robbery. "I would have preferred to have more evidence of homosexuality if it was available... It would have made a cleaner motive... I had no evidence of it at the time of the trial."
What makes Foulkes's claim of ignorance especially implausible is that she had just successfully prosecuted Williams for the murder of Hamilton, another middle-aged man who preyed on young men. At the Norwood murder trial, Foulkes mentioned the Hamilton murder, but only to make the point that Terry Williams was a heinous criminal who had killed "two innocent men" and deserved death.
In a 185-page decision, Judge Sarmina found that "evidence has plainly been suppressed," in a "willful" rather than "accidental" way. Citing Brady v Maryland (1963), the landmark Supreme Court ruling that withholding evidence that "is material either to guilt or to punishment" violates due process, she found Foulkes had "a duty to provide the defense" with her notes but omitted them "because it was exculpatory and 'material'..." Because Foulkes had "played fast and loose" with the facts, Sarmina concluded, she'd "undermine[d] confidence in the jury's death sentence," which the judge vacated, granting a stay.
"It has never made sense to me why they have gone to the lengths they have in this particular case," Nolan told me, "when you have someone who was sexually abused for so many years, including by the victim he killed. And there was evidence to support all of this in their very files that they hid. It just shocks me that they still are seeking death in this case. It makes no sense."
But even before Sarmina delivered her decision in 2012, District Attorney Seth Williams went on the attack, penning an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Making the case for Williams's execution."
After Sarmina ruled, Williams issued a press release blasting the judge for vacating a death sentence "over a few handwritten notes and scraps of paper." Moreover, he argued, if Terry Williams had been abused, he should have said something.
"How in the world could the prosecutor have 'suppressed' information that was in the defendant's own head?" DA Williams wrote. "If the defendant was really involved with Mr. Norwood, who would know better than the defendant?"
Nolan is still stunned by the district attorney's victim blaming. "This is the 1980s. Terry was 18. He had been sexually abused since the time he was six. He met his lawyer the day before his trial started. I mean, he's gonna tell the lawyer, 'By the way, that guy has been raping me since I was 13?'"
But for DA Williams, it was Foulkes who had been "unfairly victimized." To defend "the integrity of the jury's verdict and sentence," he petitioned Pennsylvania's highest court to overturn the stay.
Ronald Castille, who was the DA in Philadelphia when Terry Williams was convicted, was now chief justice on the state Supreme Court. He had personally signed off on pursuing Terry Williams's death sentence. And when running for his judgeship, he boasted about the number of people he had sent to death row. As one ad blared: "If you are looking for a law-and-order guy—Ron Castille. He put 45 murderers on death row."
On October 1, 2012, the defense team asked Castille to recuse himself. Later that same day, the judge refused.
So it was no surprise when the court unanimously overturned Sarmina's stay. In a concurring opinion, Castille doubled down on DA Williams's victim-blaming, writing that Terry Williams "could have argued Norwood's homosexual proclivities developed into sexual abuse, leading to rage and [the] ultimate murder of Norwood... However, [Williams] chose not to do so. Instead, [he] perjured himself at trial, testifying he did not know the victim, had never seen him before, took no part in the murder, and had no reason to be angry with him or wish to harm him."
Nothing the DA's office had done while Castille was running it mattered, the Castille-led court ruled, since Terry Williams hadn't told his lawyer at trial that the man he killed was his rapist.
Castille's refusal to recuse himself was so glaring that it prompted a bevy of former prosecutors and judges to file briefs supporting Williams, including Michael Wolff, who served as chief justice on the Missouri Supreme Court and is now dean of the St. Louis University School of Law.
"In effect, [Castille] was protecting the reputation of the office that he ran," Wolff told me over the phone. "Certainly a person who had involvement in a case and expressed an opinion about the suitability of a death penalty for this particular person shouldn't end up as a judge on the case. This is really about fairness in the courts and the perception by the parties and the public that they're getting a fair shake. What is the perception? How would you feel if you were appearing in a court and the presiding judge, the chief justice, was somebody who had prosecuted you? That doesn't look right."
Despite the apparent conflict of interest, the death sentence was reinstated, and outgoing Republican Governor Tom Corbett set an execution date for March 4, 2015.
On February 13, 2015, newly elected Governor Richard Wolf issued a moratorium on capital punishment, pending the findings of a state bilateral task force on the death penalty. For Terry Williams, the only death row inmate scheduled for imminent execution, Wolf's moratorium offered hope.
Once again, DA Seth Williams was furious about being denied the chance to execute Terry Williams, declaring, "The governor's action today was an injustice to the citizens of this state." The DA's office petitioned the State Supreme Court, which Castille has since retired from, to overturn the moratorium. In December, the court upheld it, leaving Terry Williams in a sort of limbo, spared an execution date but still on death row.
Which brings us to Monday's hearing, when the Supreme Court considers the life and death of Terry Williams. This isn't just a case about an individual whose whole life has been marred by relentless abuse and trauma. This isn't just the story of someone who was failed by the very people, institutions, and systems that were supposed to protect him. Nor is this a story about the death penalty, per se—even though death penalty supporters would be hard-pressed to argue that Williams didn't commit his crimes under mitigating circumstances.
It's not hyperbole to say that rule of law itself is at stake in this case, which is why Williams's supporters include not only the usual suspects like the American Civil Liberties Union, organizations that oppose capital punishment and advocate for the victims of sexual abuse, but also the judges and prosecutors. The actions of Castille, their brief argues, "undermined the legitimacy of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and indeed the judicial system as a whole."
Or as former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Wolff put it, "What you do is that you lose the public's trust and confidence in the judiciary. And once you've done that, you've really hit one of the fundamental tenets of the rule of law. You've knocked over one of the pillars."
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