District Attorney Seth Williams reacted angrily to the ruling. He announced that an immediate appeal to the state Supreme Court has been filed seeking to reinstate the death sentence.
"The well-deserved death sentence imposed by a jury on a vicious double murderer has been unjustly overturned by a Philadelphia judge, 28 years after the crime," Williams told reporters.
Terrance Williams, 46, spent 26 years on Pennsylvania's death row for the June 1984 beating death of Amos Norwood, 56, a Mt. Airy married father, chemist and church volunteer.
Williams and an accomplice tricked Norwood into driving them to a darkened cemetery where they tied him up, beat him with a tire iron and wrench, robbed him and set his body on fire.
Norwood's daughter, Barbara Norwood Harris, called for his execution to go forward.
"Mr. Williams has never admitted guilt, but he has continued to uphold his lies as a convicted killer and thief. This type of slander and defamation of character by the defendant is unbearable," she said in a statement.
Williams' defense team argued in an emergency evidentiary hearing that Norwood molested Williams from the age of 13 until he murdered him at age 18.
The defense argued that former Assistant District Attorney Andrea Foulkes, who prosecuted Williams in 1986, kept that evidence from the trial defense attorney and jury and instead presented Norwood as a kindly, sympathetic figure who merely offered Williams a ride home.
Sarmina agreed with the defense, noting the two boxes of evidence just turned over this week from homicide detectives that, she said, corroborated the defense claims against Norwood and Herbert Hamilton, 50. Williams, at 17, had a sex-for-money, abusive relationship with Hamilton and murdered him five months before killing Norwood.
"On behalf of Terry Williams, we are extremely pleased that Judge Sarmina, after carefully considering all of the evidence in this case, has vacated the death sentence based on misconduct by the prosecution," Williams' defense team said. "Her decision was right and well-reasoned."
The federal public defense attorneys asked the District Attorney's Office to "stop their appeals and stop fighting to have Terry executed."
Sarmina, reading for 45 minutes from a prepared statement, chastised Foulkes, the 1986 trial prosecutor, for not sharing all that she knew about Norwood and Hamilton with his defense attorney and for engaging in what she called "gamesmanship" to win a death sentence and for "disregarding her ethical obligations."
"The suppressed evidence establishes the fact that the government interfered," Sarmina said.
Sarmina said Foulkes failed to disclose to Williams' trial attorney that Norwood made sexual advances to a teenage boy at his church.
"Ultimately, the nondisclosure of that evidence undermines confidence in the jury's death sentence," Sarmina said.
Seth Williams praised Foulkes, who is now a U.S. Attorney, and said Sarmina had "victimized" her.
Terrance Williams' defense team said they were now hopeful that the state Board of Pardons would vote to recommend that Gov. Corbett commute Williams' sentence to life in prison without parole. The board voted against Williams last week.
Contact Mensah M. Dean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-568-8278. Follow him on Twitter @MensahDean.