Will Pennsylvania Execute a Man Who Killed His Abusers?
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At a post-conviction relief hearing in the late 1990s, attorneys argued that Williams had inadequate representation—his original lawyer, who would later be disbarred, did not meet him until one week before trial—and presented proof that, in addition to being raped at age 6 by a neighbor and “repeatedly molested by a [male] teacher” in his early teens, when he was 13, “[he] met and began a relationship with Norwood,” who was “cruel and physically abusive at times.” Family, friends and teachers attested to the abuse, and a trio of mental health experts would describe him as “suffering from extreme mental or emotional disturbance when he killed Norwood.” (Court filings describe how Norwood raped Williams in a parking lot the night before he was killed.)
But appeals at the state level were denied. And while a federal District court would acknowledge that Williams’s trial lawyer “failed to recognize that it was his duty—not his imprisoned client’s—to identify and pursue potentially mitigating evidence,” it, too, denied relief on procedural grounds.
It was not until this past winter that another witness would come forward, a former pastor named Charles Pointdexter, who knew Norwood for thirty years. He admitted having known that he had sexually abused teen boys.
“Amos seemed to have lots of close relationships with young men…” he stated in an affidavit signed February 9, 2012, saying that he began to suspect that they were “inappropriate” in nature. A few years before Amos’s death, one of the parishioners, the mother of a 15-year-old boy, told him that he had “touched her son’s genitals” during a car ride and that “Amos had inappropriately touched a number of boys at the church.” Pointdexter kept the knowledge to himself.
According to Williams’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, this revelation was key. Speaking to The Nation after visiting his client on death row last week, he described how it would ultimately lead to the jurors’ coming out against the execution. “Once we talked to Rev. Pointdexter and he told us this stuff, we did further investigation and that led us to another guy…who indicated that Mr. Norwood approached him and propositioned him,” Nolan said. “And none of that evidence had ever come out before this year.”
Then, “we went and talked to the jurors,” he said. “And the jurors said if they had known this, they wouldn’t have voted for death.”
Indeed, affidavits signed in July include repeated statements to this effect. “If I had known about the sexual abuse and how it related to the crime,” one former juror wrote, “it would have changed my mindset.” Another wrote, “Now that I know that he was a victim of sexual abuse by Mr. Norwood, I would have voted for life without parole instead of the death penalty.” In addition, three of these jurors also explained that they had sentenced Williams to die partly based on the fear that he might be eventually released. (Pennsylvania is the only state that does not compel sentencing judges to make clear that a life sentence means life without parole.) “The reason that I opted for the death sentence was because I was under the impression that if we sentenced Terrance Williams to life in prison then he could get out on parole,” one former juror said. “I didn’t want him to get out of prison.”
“That’s powerful to me,” says Nolan. And as he seeks clemency for his client, “hopefully that’s powerful to the governor.”
Also powerful is a signed declaration from Norwood’s widow, Mamie, who says she has forgiven Williams for killing her husband. “I do not wish to see Terry Williams executed,” she said, citing her Christian faith. “He is worthy of forgiveness and I am at peace with my decision.… I wish to see his life spared.”