State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

What happens next in the execution process for Terrance Williams

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | Sep 26, 2012 10:06 PM

Thumbnail image for nolanabreu0917.jpgPlanning is underway for the first state execution in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Terrance “Terry” Williams is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection on October 3, at 7 p.m. at a state prison in Centre County. Williams received the death penalty for murdering a Philadelphia man in 1984 as an 18-year-old.

In early August, Gov. Corbett signed a death warrant for the 46-year-old man setting the wheels in motion for the lethal injection to be carried out. The warrant was signed because Williams had exhausted the appeals process.

But there have been some developments since then – two recent appeals, on parallel tracks, could derail the execution before next Wednesday.

We’ll know more about the first by midday Thursday.

The clemency track

The state Board of Pardons meets Thursday at 10:30 a.m. to vote on whether to reconsider a clemency appeal by Williams. If the five-person board votes in the majority to reconsider, a hearing will begin immediately thereafter, at 11 a.m.

Some background: The board, which includes the lieutenant governor and the state attorney general, has the authority to recommend the governor change a death sentence to a life-in-prison sentence.

Last week, the panel heard arguments that Williams shouldn’t be put to death because he was sexually abused by the men he killed (Williams was charged with two murders, but only received the death penalty for one). The board voted three to two for clemency. But to make a recommendation against execution, the vote must be unanimous. The unanimous requirement was added in a 1997 change to the state Constitution.

Why the Board matters: The governor cannot commute a death sentence to a life-in-prison sentence without the recommendation of the Pardons Board.

Why the Board isn’t all that matters: The governor could still, without a recommendation from the Board, issue Williams a temporary reprieve. According to the governor’s counsel, past reprieves have been linked to pending appeals. “It should not be open-ended and vague,” said Linda Hoffa, Executive Deputy General Counsel.

The stay-of-execution track

This one all depends on the word of one judge, and it’s expected to come on Friday. In Philadelphia last week and on Monday, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina heard arguments from Williams’ lawyers that evidence about their client’s sexual abuse was kept out of earlier trials by prosecutors. Had that testimony been included, they said, a jury wouldn’t have chosen a death sentence for Williams.

Judge Sarmina plans to rule on the appeal Friday. The decision can be appealed to the Supreme Court. 

This isn’t Williams’ first death warrant. The first one, according to the Department of Corrections, “was signed by Gov. Rendell on June 30, 2005, setting the execution for Aug. 18, 2005. That warrant was stayed on July 19, 2005 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District.”

Photo: Lawyers for Williams, Shawn Nolan and Victor Abreu, after the Board of Pardons rejected the clemency request on Sept. 17.  Mary Wilson / witf.

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