Inquirer Editorial: Justice doesn't require death

Posted: August 16, 2012

On more than 100 occasions over the last decade, the governor of Pennsylvania has signed a warrant authorizing a convicted killer's execution.

But not until Gov. Corbett put his signature on a former Philadelphia man's death warrant last week had a state inmate faced the immediate prospect of being led to the death chamber against his will.

The case of Terrance Williams, convicted in a 1984 murder, appears to be different - and that makes it a special challenge to the state's discredited but, fortunately, little-used system of capital punishment.

Over the more than three decades since the state reinstituted capital punishment in 1978, only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania. And all three - including the infamous killer Gary M. Heidnik, who kidnapped and tortured his victims - had halted all their appeals.

By contrast, Williams, 46, hopes to fight on. He is attempting one final bid to have his sentence commuted to life. Having exhausted other appeals through the state and federal appellate courts, however, Williams could face execution by lethal injection as early as Oct. 3.

Yet there is good reason to spare Williams' life - signed death warrant or not.

The defendant's death-penalty conviction illustrates many of the flaws that rightly erode public confidence in capital punishment and helps make the case for scrapping the death penalty.

At his trial, Williams' defense attorneys never put evidence before the jury that could have spared their client's life. At the time barely 18 years old, Williams had a history of being sexual abused, including at the hands of his victim - a potentially mitigating factor that might have made a big difference in his sentencing.

Just as important, some jurors in Williams trial have since said they opted for the death penalty on the mistaken belief that the defendant could have been paroled if given life in prison.

Such missteps are all too common, especially when Philadelphia defendants receive a rushed defense by court-appointed counsel working for minimal retainers. Nationally, such poor legal counsel is an important factor in why the death penalty falls disproportionately on poor and minority defendants, studies show.

Beyond any flaws in Williams' defense, his threatened execution would come at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court itself has begun questioning what Justice Harry A. Blackmun famously called "the machinery of death."

As a killer who perpetrated an earlier third-degree murder at age 17, and then committed first-degree murder shortly after coming of age, Williams effectively fits the profile of the juvenile defendants for whom the Supreme Court now has banned execution.

In fact, even the widow of Williams' victim is said to support commuting his sentence to life without parole. That's perfectly in line with the nation's growing unease over the death penalty.

The right course clearly would be for Philadelphia prosecutors to intervene and recommend tearing up the death warrant for Terrance Williams. Justice can be served without his execution.

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