Judge halts execution of Philadelphia killer
A Philadelphia judge halted the scheduled Wednesday execution of a death-row inmate and granted him a new sentencing hearing.
Judge M. Teresa Sarmina on Friday said that prosecutors suppressed evidence that Terrance Williams killed Amos Norwood, 56, in 1984 after years of sexual abuse.
A jury convicted Williams of robbing and murdering Norwood as an 18-year-old college freshman.
Williams’ lawyers say police and prosecutors withheld evidence about the sexual link between him and Norwood; therefore, the jury never heard about it before voting for a death sentence.
“Judge Sarmina found that the trial prosecutor engaged in misconduct. She found that the prosecutor ‘played games and took unfair measures to win.’ She also noted that the prosecutor violated her ethical duty for failing to turn over evidence in the files in the possession of the Commonwealth,” said Williams’ attorney Shawn Nolan.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he has directed his office to file an immediate appeal with the state Supreme Court for Williams’ “well-deserved” death sentence.
“How in the world could the prosecutor have ‘suppressed’ information that was in the defendant’s own head?” the district attorney said in a prepared statement. “If the defendant was really involved with Mr. Norwood, who would know better than the defendant?
“Only one other person could have known the truth — and he is dead, because Terrance Williams tied up his hands and feet, gagged him with a sock, beat him to death with a tire iron, burned his body beyond recognition, and then took his car to go on a gambling spree in Atlantic City with the victim’s credit cards.
“All the safeguards of our legal system have been created to protect the innocent. This man is not innocent — even he has finally admitted what he did.”
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, who is not involved in the case, called the decision “a reprieve.”
“It’s not entirely what he wanted, but for him, this is a necessary first step, perhaps, toward a pardon,” Burkoff said.
Sarmina’s decision was reached a day after the state Board of Pardons agreed to hear for a second time Williams’ plea for clemency, but put off any action before Sarmina’s decision.
The board on Sept. 17 split on whether to recommend that Gov. Tom Corbett commute Williams’ death sentence to life in prison.
St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, said the judge’s decision makes sense.
“We’re not talking about just confining him to jail. We are talking about an action which by its nature means there will be no further considerations, there will be no final appeals. There will just be this man’s death,” Antkowiak said.
“If there is cause to take one last look at it, it would seem only appropriate that we do so.”
Williams would be the first person executed in Pennsylvania since 1999, when the state put Gary Heidnik of Philadelphia to death for the 1988 kidnappings and tortures of six women — two of whom he killed — in what became known as the “House of Horrors.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or [email protected].