Monday and Tuesday could see a burst of last-minute legal activity as Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court decides whether to affirm or reverse Friday’s ruling staying Wednesday’s scheduled execution of condemned Philadelphia killer Terrance Williams.
Legally, as of now Williams’ death sentence for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, 56, is on hold. But that could change in an instant if the state’s high court reverses the stay by Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office filed the emergency motion with the Supreme Court hours after Sarmina’s ruling but since then, according to the court’s website, nothing: no orders for the filing of legal briefs, scheduling of a hearing, response of any kind.
That may not be unusual and District Attorney Seth Williams said Friday that he does not believe it likely that the court will act on his emergency motion before Terry Williams’ death warrant expires at midnight Wednesday.
According to Janet Kelley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Corbett, if the warrant expires the governor is required to sign a new warrant within 30 days from when Sarmina’s stay is lifted. A new execution date would then have to be set within 60 days of the signing of the new warrant, Kelley said.
Any action by the state Supreme Court before Wednesday will trigger appeals by one side or the other to the federal court system or even to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Williams’ petition for clemency also remains under review by the state Board of Pardons, which had two hearings over the last two weeks on Williams’ plea to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison without chance of parole.
The five-member pardons board must be unanimous to pass on a nonbinding recommendation of clemency to the governor. The clemency vote failed on Sept. 17 with a 3-2 vote for clemency but last Thursday the board agreed to reconsider Williams’ petition and this time it decided to hold it under advisement.
Meanwhile, Williams, 46, remains in the state prison at Greene in western Pennsylvania, half a state away from the state prison at Rockview, where the last person in Pennsylvania was executed in 1999.
Only three people have been executed since Pennsylvania reenacted the death penalty in 1978 but all three ended their appeals and asked to be put to death. The last contested Pennsylvania execution was in 1962.
Williams, then an 18-year-old Cheyney University freshman and football star from Germantown High School, was sentenced to death for the June 11, 1984 murder of Norwood, a Germantown church volunteer whose body was found in a cemetery, head bludgeoned with a tire iron and then set afire.
Prosecutors alleged that Williams and admitted accomplice Marc Draper, then also 18, killed Norwood during a robbery and Williams did take Norwood’s car, cash and credit cards to gamble in Atlantic City.
At trial, Williams testified that he did not know Norwood and was not there when Draper and another person killed Norwood.
But in her ruling Friday granting a stay of execution, Judge Sarmina said she believed Draper’s recantation statement that police and prosecutor ignored his first account of the Norwood killing: a rage-based attack fueled by five years of sexual abuse by Norwood and other men.
Had prosecutors made that information available to the defense attorney to use at trial, Sarmina said, the jury might have decided to spare Williams’ life and sentence him to life in prison.