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Smart Talk - The Death Penalty in PA

Written by Nell McCormack Abom | Oct 3, 2012 9:55 AM

Condemned killer Terrance "Terry" Williams will live to see another day.  He won a reprieve from his scheduled execution date tonight from the state Supreme Court which rejected a motion to vacate a stay put in place last week by a Philadelphia judge.  The Commonwealth’s “death row” houses 200 inmates, yet no one has been executed here since 1999. We’ll take a comprehensive look at capital punishment on Smart Talk with our panel of experts and take your phone calls live at 8 p.m. on Thursday at 1-800-729-7532. You also can email smarttalk@witf,org, post a comment here or on Facebook.injection.JPG

Our panel will feature noted Harrisburg criminal defense attorney, Spero Lappas, who also is a member of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to Capital Punishment. Lappas appeared last week on Radio Smart Talk to talk about the Williams case. Lebanon County District Attorney Dave Arnold will share his perspective on prosecuting those accused of capital crimes.

Terrance Williams was 18 in 1984 when he beat to death 56-year-old Amos Norwood, a chemist and church volunteer. A Philadelphia jury found Williams guilty and sentenced him to death. (He also was convicted of a second murder but given a life sentence for that crime.)  His execution was slated for October 3 until Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina stayed that order. After several days of hearings, Judge Sarmina determined that the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office withheld evidence at the 1986 trial that Norwood had sexually abused young boys. Williams’ attorneys now claim that he had been abused by Norwood. The judge also said prosecutors had “sanitized” some of the witness statements that they gave to his defense team and failed to fully disclose details of a deal they made with his co-defendant. The judge upheld Williams’ first-degree murder conviction, but also ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams  denounced the ruling and immediately appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “This is about process, and I'll not walk away from doing my job, and that means preserving the integrity of this jury's verdict," he said.  Last weekend, The Philadelphia Inquirer published his forceful defense of the death penalty for Terrance Williams.

The Supreme Court appeal outraged Terrance Williams’ attorneys. One of them, Shawn Nolan, told The  Inquirer, "It is legally and ethically unconscionable that Seth Williams and his assistants continue to advocate for the execution of Terry Williams after hiding significant evidence for 28 years from defense counsel, jurors, the courts, the Board of Pardons, and the citizens of Pennsylvania."

Williams' defense team released the following statement after the Supreme Court's ruling today, "On behalf of Terry Williams we are extremely pleased that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has affirmed Judge Sarmina’s grant of a stay of execution and want to thank everyone supporting the effort to stop this execution. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has wisely decided to consider all of the evidence before making a final decision and we look forward to presenting our case in the coming months."

Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1978. Since then, the Commonwealth has executed three people after they surrendered their right to appeals and asked to die. The last one was Gary “House of Horrors” Heidnik in 1999.

Williams’ defense team wants his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons also is reviewing a decision on whether to commute his sentence. The board must unanimously agree in death penalty cases to recommend commutation before the governor may do so. Lawmakers had changed the pardons procedures in 1997 after several high-profile cases in which murderers, freed after years in prison, committed heinous new crimes.

What do you think of the death penalty as a deterrent?  Is it moral and a just punishment for the taking of human life?  How do you feel about the long delay between the time of sentencing and the carrying out of the death penalty?  We welcome your comments on capital punishment. Call in live to the program Thursday night at 8 to 1-800-729-7532, email, post a comment here or on Facebook.

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