Mercy for Terry Williams, no more death penalty in Pa.

Posted: September 12, 2012

PENNSYLVANIA still has the death penalty, unlike its sister states of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, all of which have now abolished it. It hasn't used it in the present century, although it houses the fourth-largest death-row population in the country. Time is running out for many of the condemned as their appeals wind down. It may be running out for Terry Williams, whose Oct. 3 death warrant was signed last week by Gov. Corbett.

There are many reasons to abandon the death penalty. It can kill the innocent - in Texas, it demonstrably has. It is arbitrarily applied and discriminates heavily against minorities, the poor and, despite Supreme Court rulings, the mentally disabled. It consumes scarce public resources, which is why prosecutors in every county in New Jersey petitioned the Legislature in support of abolition. For some of us, it shocks the ethical or religious conscience. It does not deter crime, as repeated studies have shown.

I have corresponded with a number of death-row inmates over the years. I make it a point not to inquire into the circumstances of their cases. Whatever punishment they may deserve, it is not death.

Terry Williams is one of my correspondents. I've gotten to know him personally. He is a sensitive and intelligent man who was frightfully abused as a youngster. He was condemned for killing one of the men who had abused him, though this fact was never brought to the attention of his jury. He was 18 years old at the time of his trial. The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has spent the past three decades trying to execute him. It never tried to rehabilitate him, but he has succeeded in rehabilitating himself against all odds and in the worst of all possible places. Terry has something to offer the world now other than his anger and confusion. Even in prison, where he would spend the rest of his life if his sentence were commuted, he could make a positive difference to others.

Terry's case is particularly ironic in light of the recent trial of Jerry Sandusky for abusing minors in his care. Witness after witness, all bearing the marks of their trauma even after many years, testified to their abuse at the hands of a powerful and protected man. The country watched and listened, transfixed. A great university was humbled and punished. Its president was fired, as well as the football coach who had been a national icon. It is very likely that Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in prison.

If one of Sandusky's victims had sought violent revenge against him, would he have been sentenced to death as Terry Williams was?

Of course, Terry's abuse was never presented to his jurors as a mitigating factor in his crime. The jury was confused by its instructions, wrongly believing that Terry might be eligible for parole (life sentences in Pennsylvania are ineligible for parole). The court-appointed lawyer who represented him had neither the resources nor the incentive to mount a proper defense for him. That was the way of it in Philadelphia in the 1980s after the reinstitution of the state's death penalty; it is in large part the reason why Pennsylvania's death row is so crowded today and why so many questionable or unjust sentences are now coming to term. Terry's is only the first of them.

The incidence of capital sentencing has been falling in Pennsylvania, as in many states across the country where the death penalty is still on the books. Philadelphia's district attorney, Seth Williams, has an opportunity to revisit Terry's case. His voice, if raised for clemency, could make the difference between life and death.

It may be objected that Terry Williams has had the benefit of judicial review up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court, and that no tribunal has seen fit to set his sentence aside. I attended Terry's federal court hearing in Philadelphia. The judges were clearly uncomfortable with his case, but they felt bound by the iron rules of appeal that limit the application of compassion and equity even when circumstances cry out for them.

It is time that mercy's plea was heard for Terry Williams. That would be true justice. To carry out his execution now would add another sad chapter to the tragic history of capital punishment in America.

It would also cost me a friend.

Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University and a member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

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