Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
A unanimous vote from the state Board of Pardons is required to suggest to the governor that Williams not be executed. The vote was three-to-two in favor of a life without parole sentence.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the board took it seriously and thought about it and obviously, they were concerned and I think the outcome was correct,” said Tom Dolgenos, with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, though he noted his surprise that three votes were cast against putting Williams to death.
That Williams’ clemency application had a majority of votes, but not the unanimous support required, was noted by his lawyer, Shawn Nolan, with the Federal Community Defender office of eastern Pennsylvania.
“I have to say that’s frustrating,” said Nolan. “The fact that we did get three votes was gratifying. Unfortunately, the law was changed some time ago, that it has to be unanimous.”
Before 1997, the Board of Pardons could recommend the governor to overturn a death warrant if a clemency application received a majority vote.
Nolan’s testimony before the board was built around the argument that Williams killed Amos Norwood and Herbert Hamilton in 1984 as an 18-year-old who had long suffered sexual abuse at the hands of those two men. A children’s advocate and a clinical and forensic psychologist argued the board should grant clemency on that basis.
David Lisak, Ph.D, said in three separate meetings this year, Williams told him of the abusive relationship he had with Norwood, for whose killing he received the death penalty.
Prosecutors argued such claims are mere hearsay, and suspiciously convenient for Williams, who has shown a history of lying under oath, and admitted to no such abuse in his first trial.
But Lisak said it’s common among victims of sexual abuse to tell the stories of their molestation over time, and in fragments. He made repeated references to the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case prosecuted this year. At one point, Lisak quoted the words of Attorney General Linda Kelly at the conclusion of that case, a member of the Board of Pardons.
“One of the recurring themes of the witnesses’ testimony which came from the voices of the victims themselves in this case was, ‘Who would believe a kid?’” said Kelly last June after the guilty verdict was read. “And the answer to that question is, we here in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania would believe a kid.”
Said Lisak, “Is it only some kids who get to be believed?”
Kelly voted in favor of clemency.
But prosecutor Dolgenos said there’s a lot to distinguish Sandusky’s victims from Terrance Williams. “He is a murderer and, now, an admitted murderer,” said Dolgenos.
Williams’ attorneys now turn their attention to an emergency hearing scheduled for Thursday in the Court of Common Pleas. They’re asking for a stay of execution, arguing new testimony supports claims from Williams he was sexually abused by Norwood, and prosecutors kept evidence of that abuse out of court.
Prosecutors argue that Williams’ case is unique among death penalty cases in that, despite multiple reviews, no judge has ever overturned the original sentence. But defense attorney Nolan said the new element requiring an emergency hearing this week is the testimony of Marc Draper, who committed the murders with Williams.
“Only this year, recently, has he agreed to talk, and when he talked, he’s come forward and filed three affidavits, saying that he told the prosecutors was that what this was about was sex, and not about a robbery,” said Nolan.
The hearing before Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina is scheduled for Thursday in Philadelphia.
Williams would be the first man the state has put to death in 13 years.
Photo credit: Mary Wilson / witf. Lawyers for Williams, Shawn Nolan and Victor Abreu, after the Board of Pardons rejected the clemency application in Harrisburg, Pa.
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