Board sends Williams clemency case back to Phila. judge

Posted: September 28, 2012

HARRISBURG - The state Board of Pardons on Thursday agreed to hear for a second time the clemency plea of condemned Philadelphia killer Terrance Williams, but after voting to reopen the case and listening to oral arguments, the panel took the issue under advisement.

That moved Williams' hope of escaping execution by lethal injection back to Philadelphia on Friday, where Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina will decide whether to grant his plea for a stay of execution.

On Thursday, the pardons board first voted, 4-1, to reconsider clemency. Lawyers for Williams and the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office presented 90 minutes of arguments. The board then agreed unanimously to delay a second ruling on clemency but did not indicate when it would take a final vote.

The board's action reversed a Sept. 17 vote in which Williams' plea to have his Wednesday death sentence commuted to life in prison without parole failed on a 5-3 vote. The board's vote must be unanimous to send a nonbinding recommendation to Gov. Corbett.

After the oral arguments Thursday, Thomas Dolgenos of the District Attorney's Office argued that the board should not act until after Sarmina decides.

"This board should be a court of last resort," Dolgenos argued.

After the hearing, Dolgenos seemed pleased by the board's decision, as did Williams' attorney, Shawn Nolan. Nolan said he was happy that clemency was again a possibility for Williams, 46.

"This is the place where mercy, clemency, may be exercised," Nolan said afterward. "They can see what happens with the court and then make a decision."

The board members did not comment on the reasons for their votes but the proceedings seemed to upend some positions taken on Sept. 17.

In the vote to reconsider Williams' clemency petition, Attorney General Linda Kelly was the lone vote against, though she voted for clemency on Sept. 17.

And the motion to reconsider was made by Harris Gubernick, a corrections expert, who with Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley voted against clemency before.

In Philadelphia, Sarmina is considering what defense lawyers say is evidence the jury that sentenced Williams to death in 1986 did so based on misinformation: the prosecutor's theory that the killing of Amos Norwood, 56, happened during a robbery.

Instead, the defense says, newly discovered evidence shows the prosecutor knew of information that lent credence to Williams' claim that the killing was an act of rage based on Norwood's sexual abuse of Williams from age 13 until the slaying in 1984.

Prosecutors maintain that the information is not new and that there was no independent corroboration Williams was sexually abused.

When the lawyers gather before Sarmina on Friday morning, the judge has said, she will rule on Williams' petition for a stay of execution.

In addition to Williams' claims of sexual abuse by Norwood and others, defense lawyers argue the prosecutor in 1986, Andrea Foulkes, withheld from the jury that she had promised Marc Draper, Williams' admitted accomplice, a recommendation to state parole officials if he pleaded guilty and testified that the killing occurred during a robbery.

Draper, now 46, testified that he felt duped when he learned his guilty plea resulted in a life prison term without parole.

Foulkes denounced Draper's recantation as a lie during testimony last week before Sarmina. She called her letter to the parole board in 1986 routine, though she conceded she would have told the jury about it if the trial were held today.

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985,, or follow @joeslobo on Twitter.

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