In a 5-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice should have recused himself in the case of Terrance Williams. The judge in question, Justice Ronald Castille had been the District Attorney of Philadelphia and had participated in Williams’ original death penalty original death penalty trial.
The following is a press statement released by attorneys for Williams at the Philadelphia Capital Habeas Unit:
June 9, 2016, Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today, 5-3, that death row prisoner Terry Williams’ constitutional rights were violated when former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille refused to recuse himself from consideration of Mr. Williams’ death penalty appeal. The Court remanded the case, Williams v. Pennsylvania, for consideration by a neutral, unbiased court.
“Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, Chief, Capital Habeas Unit, Federal Community Defender Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and counsel for Petitioner Williams. “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”
Today’s majority opinion, by Justice Kennedy, notes that the due process guarantee that “no man can be a judge in his own case would have little substance if it did not disqualify a former prosecutor from sitting in judgment of a prosecution in which he or she had made a critical decision.” The Court also addressed the unique impact of Justice Castille’s bias on a capital prosecution: “There can be no doubt that the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice in the adversary process. Indeed, after a defendant is charged with a death-eligible crime, whether to ask a jury to end the defendant’s life is one of the most serious discretionary decisions a prosecutor can be called upon to make.” The Court easily answered the question of whether Justice Castille’s bias infected the process: “Chief Justice Castille’s participation in Williams’s case was an error that affected the State Supreme Court’s whole adjudicatory framework below.”
The Williams v. Pennsylvania opinion can be accessed here: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/15-5040_6537.pdf
Former Chief Justice Castille had previously served as the District Attorney of Philadelphia and authorized seeking a death sentence for Mr. Williams.
“Today’s ruling makes clear that if you prosecute a case and personally authorize the death penalty, you cannot later sit as a judge on that same case to decide whether your own office engaged in prosecutorial misconduct to obtain that death sentence. That is what happened here. Former Chief Justice Castille personally authorized seeking death against Mr. Williams, a sexually abused teenager who was repeatedly victimized by the man he killed. The D.A.’s office had this information in its files but hid it and misled the jury. Later, Chief Justice Castille refused to recuse himself and ignored the misconduct of the lawyers in the office that he ran. As the Court found today, the potential bias that former Chief Justice Castille brought to the tribunal was impermissible,” Mr. Nolan said.
Terry Williams suffered from years of horrific sexual abuse. Mr. Williams’ tragic history of sexual abuse by older males, which began when he was only six years old, led to the crime for which he was sentenced to die.
When he was 17 and 18 years old, Mr. Williams was convicted of killing two men, both of whom raped him throughout his adolescence. In Mr. Williams’ first trial in 1984, the jury was aware of the sexual abuse and did not convict Mr. Williams of capital murder. Twenty-eight years after the second trial, a state court found that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, under Chief Justice Castille’s leadership, illegally suppressed evidence of the sexually abusive relationship between Mr. Williams and his victim in order to secure a death sentence. The trial prosecutor told the jury that the victim was killed for being a “kind man” who offered Mr. Williams a ride home, despite the evidence in the prosecution files which pointed to the sexual abuse of multiple boys, including Mr. Williams.
After serving as District Attorney, Mr. Castille campaigned successfully for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, citing the 45 people he had sent to death row, which included Mr. Williams. He refused to recuse himself from review of a state post-conviction court finding that Mr. Williams’ death sentence was invalid. He also refused to refer the question of his participation to the full Court.
Several bipartisan amicus briefs were filed at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of relief for Mr. Williams, including by former federal and state appellate court judges, sixteen former judges with prosecutorial experience; nineteen legal ethicists, the Constitutional Accountability Center, the Brennan Center and the American Bar Association, among others.
Mr. Williams’ case has been the subject of an unprecedented outpouring of support from prominent groups and individuals across Pennsylvania. Among those who have publicly called for Terry's death sentence to be commuted are the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, nearly 20 other state coalitions against sexual violence, over three dozen child advocates, several human rights organizations, and dozens of former prosecutors and judges, law professors, mental health professionals, and faith leaders.
For additional background about Williams v. Pennsylvania and the Terry Williams case, please go to: http://www.terrywilliamsclemency.com.