The Case of Terrance Williams: 'Arbitrary' Capital Punishment?


Terrance Williams was a few months over the age of 18 when he killed a man with a tire iron in 1984. It was not his first murder. He killed a man a few months earlier as a juvenile.

On October 3, he stands to be the first man executed against his will in Pennsylvania in more than half a century. That execution should be delayed.

With his execution looming, one harkens back to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's admonition when striking down the death penalty 40 years ago.

“These death sentences are cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual,” Stewart wrote in 1972.

This time, instead of comparing death sentences to lightning strikes, a justice could easily compare executions to lightning strikes. In 2012, are executions arbitrary in the same way that death sentences were arbitrary in 1972?

The last non-voluntary execution in Pennsylvania was in 1962, when Elmo Smith of Norristown died in the electric chair for the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl. Three death row inmates between 1995 and 1999 waived their appeal rights and volunteered to be executed. The last person executed in the state was Gary Heidnik in 1999.

Pennsylvania reinstated capital punishment in 1978, after the state legislature, in light of the Supreme Court decision, sought to narrow those who would be eligible for the death penalty by enumerating aggravating circumstances or factors that would necessitate the application of the death penalty.

It also sought to individualize sentences by permitting convicted killers to present mitigating factors to obviate the imposition of death.

The “new” death penalty statute in Pennsylvania mandated that proceedings move to the penalty phase following a First Degree murder conviction, in which the defendant is found to have committed a “willful, deliberate and premeditated killing.” The prosecution and defense would then present evidence on aggravating and mitigating factors.

The statute lists 18 aggravating factors and an infinite number of mitigating factors, including age, absence of criminal history or emotional distress.

If the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, the jury is directed to impose a sentence of death.

Last fall, the Joint State Government Commission established an Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. The Advisory Committee is charged with studying capital punishment and reporting its findings and recommendations. I am a member of the advisory committee.

Over the last decade, the Supreme Court has chipped away at capital punishment. Initially, the High Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. Soon after, the court banned the execution of juveniles. The court later ruled that the rape of a child was not an executable offense.

Terrance Williams, now 46, is one of 219 inmates on death row. Why is he a better candidate for execution than any of the other 218 death row inmates?

Williams' attorneys and supporters cite mitigating factors that were not presented at trial. Jurors from his 1990 trial have come forward to say they would not have sentenced Williams to death had they been aware of that mitigation evidence, which included the allegations that he was sexually abused from an early age, and that both of his victims had abused him.

None of this mitigation evidence was raised during his direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court nor was the issue raised in post-conviction appeals.

But he has exhausted his appeal and post-conviction rights.

He filed a last minute lawsuit to stop his execution with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. At a hearing earlier this month, the Board of Pardons voted 3-2 in favor of commuting his sentence to life without parole, but state law requires a unanimous vote to issue a “nonbinding” recommendation to the governor to halt executions.

The question remains: why Terrance Williams?

Pennsylvania has been, for all intents and purposes, out of the execution business for 50 years. Is Williams the best candidate to usher in a new era of non-voluntary executions?

The answer is no.

Let the advisory committee study the death penalty and provide findings and recommendations to the legislature before carrying out an execution.

Matthew T. Mangino, former district attorney of Lawrence County, is a member of the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole and serves on the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment. He welcomes comments from readers, and can be contacted at Follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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