DN Editorial: Editorial: Life, not death, for Terrance Williams

Posted: September 14, 2012

A MAN scheduled to die on Oct. 3 is becoming a cause celebre for many who believe the state erred in scheduling his execution, and over the death penalty he received 28 years ago.

Terrance Williams was barely 18 when he killed Amos Norwood in 1984. Williams' attorney has argued that Norwood had been sexually abusing Williams since the boy was 13. This information was kept from the jury, and many on the jury now say that if they had known, they would not have imposed the death penalty.

The list of those lining up to plead for clemency for Williams is long: It includes Norwood's widow, as well as 18 retired prosecutors and eight retired judges. Even Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput has argued against putting him to death.

We agree that Williams should not be put to death. And we echo Chaput's eloquent words on the subject of capital punishment, which, he wrote in a recent column, succeeds in "answering violence with violence - a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives."

Williams' age at the time of the murder - he was barely 18 - should also give pause to the state. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed by those under 18. That ruling is just one of multiple high-court decisions regarding juvenile crimes.

In fact, on Wednesday the state Supreme Court was weighing how and when to apply a June ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional. The high court ruled that such a sentence can't be imposed without a judge or jury considering mitigating factors, such as the facts of a defendants' life circumstances and the nature of the crime.

There is increased recognition that children and teenagers are developmentally different from adults, and that it is unfair to punish them using the same standards as adults. Williams was only barely an adult at the time of the Norwood murder - should he die for not commiting his crime a few months earlier?

(He is also serving a sentence for another murder, committed when he was 17, of another man accused of abusing him.)

The drumbeat against Williams' execution is also fired by a disturbing vagueness found in Pennsylvania courts' sentencing instructions. A 2004 report by the American Bar Association on Pennsylvania's death penalty found that the overwhelming majority of capital jurors don't understand their roles and responsibilities when deciding whether to impose a death sentence. That report cited a study in which 82.8 percent of capital jurors did not believe "that a life sentence really meant life in prison." In other words, if they had, they would have not imposed death instead.

Among the things that have changed in the 28 years Williams has been waiting to die: increased horror at sexual abuse of children.

Williams' clemency hearing is Monday. But Gov. Corbett can and should commute this death sentence now.

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