Will Pennsylvania Execute a Man Who Killed His Abusers?
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Eighteen-year-old Terrance Williams “did not fit the mold of a typical street criminal,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in September of 1984. “He was a bright, talented college student, former star quarterback of the Germantown High School football team. His friends, teachers, coaches and neighbors could not believe that he would be involved in murder, or any sordid activity.”
Yet Williams, who is African-American, had committed two grisly killings. One victim, the Inquirer reported, was 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, who had been found naked, with a knife through his throat, on his kitchen floor. The other, Amos Norwood, who led the altar boys and directed the Youth Theater Fellowship at Philadelphia’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, had been beaten with a tire iron, set on fire, and left in a cemetery.
“The problem I find with you, Mr. Williams, is you are a Jekyll and Hyde, apparently,” one judge told him. Tried as an adult for the Hamilton murder despite being 17 at the time, Williams was already in prison when he was sentenced to die for killing Norwood. “We were glad we did it,” one juror told the press.
Today, Williams, 46, is facing death by lethal injection. This August, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a warrant scheduling his execution for October 3. But in the meantime, the same jurors who sealed his fate have had a dramatic change of heart. At least five say that if they could go back, they would never have sent Williams to death row. That’s because they were never told a salient and deeply disturbing detail about his relationship with his victim. Williams, it turns out, had been violently and systematically raped by Norwood, beginning when he was 13 years old.
In fact, behind the image of Williams as a model student athlete was a childhood marred by horrific physical and sexual abuse that began from the time Williams was just 6 years old. Relentlessly beaten by his mother (herself a victim of abuse) and his alcoholic stepfather and gang-raped at a juvenile detention center when he was 16, by the time Williams killed Norwood he was regularly cutting himself, abusing drugs and alcohol, and had endured more than a decade of abuse.
Among the others who sexually assaulted him: his other victim, Herbert Hamilton.
Hamilton’s preying on teen boys seemed to be an open secret. The same Inquirer story opened with a description of the man as a devoted supporter of the Ben Franklin High School basketball team, a man who bought warm-up suits for the players and “bought a van to shuttle the team to and from games.” But he “also often invited youths he met through sports to his West Philadelphia apartment to join him, according to police, in homosexual activity.”
Williams was among them. While the Ben Franklin basketball coach claimed not to know about the abuse—a word conspicuously absent from press reports at the time, along with “rape”—he told the Inquirer that Williams was one of the boys who was “was over to his house a lot.”
Williams was shown some leniency for the Hamilton killing, in part because it reportedly occurred during a violent struggle after Hamilton demanded that Williams pose naked for him. He was convicted of third-degree murder and given a maximum sentence of twenty-seven years. But such evidence played no role in the trial for Norwood’s murder. His co-defendant, Marc Draper, the son of a police officer, testified against him to save his own life, claiming that Williams had been primarily motivated by a desire to rob Norwood. He got a life sentence, while Williams was given the death penalty.