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Will Pennsylvania Execute a Man Who Killed His Abusers?

The same jurors who sealed his fate have had a dramatic change of heart.

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On the victims’ side, says Nolan, “There is nobody in this case that is asking for the death penalty.”

Indeed, there is overwhelming support for clemency. Among those calling on the state to spare Williams’s life are twenty-two former prosecutors, eight retired judges and forty-seven mental health professionals—a highly unusual display of support. Part of this is likely due to an increased public awareness of sexual abuse. Particularly in the wake of the Penn State abuse scandal, says Nolan, “when you put that in the context of the bigger discussion that everyone’s been having over the last year,” the case for clemency is compelling. “We have learned that so many young people have been the victims of sexual abuse [in Pennsylvania],” he says. While not all victims murder their abusers, Williams’s petition argues that his case is largely about devastating effects of that victimization.

At a hearing on Monday, September 17, Williams’s attorneys will have thirty minutes to convince the state pardons board to spare his life. It won’t be easy: the five-member body is notoriously stingy when it comes to commutations. Its members include the lieutenant governor and state attorney general, who, Nolan “interestingly is our opposing counsel in some of this litigation.”

Recommendations for clemency must be unanimous, and the governor must then agree. “It’s a tough process,” says Nolan. But he believes if there was ever a case for clemency, this is it.

This is not the first time Williams has faced the death chamber. Governor Ed Rendell signed an execution warrant for him in 2005—the thirty-ninth of his term. (He would go on to sign many more, boasting a total of 119 by the end of his tenure.) In fact, despite piles of execution warrants signed over the years—Corbett has signed at least nineteen since taking office—Pennsylvania has not carried out the death penalty since a prisoner volunteered in 1999. The last time Pennsylvania put a man to death against his will was in 1962.

To his supporters, resuming executions by killing of Terrance Williams would put a particularly ugly face on the state’s death penalty. —To me, this is a much more compelling case than a lot of cases that you see,” says Nolan. “It has that direct correlation to the crime. The man who was killed was victimizing this young boy, for years. And the jury never knew that. And that’s outrageous.”

Go here to read the clemency petition, signed affadavits, and more in support of Terrance Williams.

Liliana Segura is an independent journalist and editor with a focus on social justice, prisons & harsh sentencing.
 
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