State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Lawyers wait for word from Supreme Court on next step in Terrance Williams case

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Oct 4, 2012 2:37 PM
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The state Supreme Court’s ruling to uphold a stay of execution for Terrance Williams doesn’t mean the convicted murderer is off death row. But lawyers aren’t yet sure when or if a new date will be set to put Williams to death.

They were racing the clock in the case of Williams the minute his death warrant was signed in early August, setting an October third execution.

The death by lethal injection sentence was halted by a Philadelphia judge who ruled evidence was suppressed in the trial that led to Williams receiving the death penalty. The state Supreme Court then ruled to uphold the stay. The court must still decide whether to uphold the lower court’s ruling that Williams must receive a new sentencing hearing.

“What this case would be sent back for… if the commonwealth’s appeal is denied, is a new sentencing, or penalty hearing, where the jury decides life without parole, or death,” said Victor Abreu, one of Williams’ attorneys.

“If the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturns the grant of a new sentencing hearing, that could be a moment that would trigger a new warrant,” he said.

Lawyers are awaiting an order from the state’s high court to submit summaries of their arguments, which will give them some idea of the new timeline of the case.

Williams was convicted for the 1984 murder of a man his lawyers say sexually abused him. Philadelphia Judge M. Teresa Sarmin, who stopped Williams’ execution, said he should get a new sentence from a jury that is presented with evidence of the abuse.

Williams has been on death row since his conviction in 1986. The most recent death warrant signed by Gov. Corbett was Williams’ second. His first was signed in 2005 by former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Gov. Corbett has said Pennsylvania is slow to schedule executions in death penalty cases because the local federal appeals court bogs cases down. But Abreu said the pace can be attributed to state and federal laws that have only relatively recently put limitations in place to move death penalty cases through the appeals process.

“There was once upon a time before 1996, no statute in Pennsylvania that required capital petitioners or anyone else to file for what is called post-conviction relief within any time period,” he said. “Now the statute requires you to file within a year of your sentence becoming final.”

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