Terry Williams was six years old the first time he was raped by an 11-year-old boy who lived in the neighborhood. He was not much older when he was sodomized again by another boy he knew. He was in middle school when it happened a third time. One of his teachers went out of his way to develop a close relationship with the boy, worked hard to build up his trust. Eventually, that same teacher began to regularly sexually abuse him. From there, things only got worse.
He was 13 when he began a "relationship" with Amos Norwood, age 51, whose rape and physical abuse continued over the next four years. He was 15 when an older man held a knife to his neck in the boys' home where he lived, and forced him to perform fellatio on him. He was 16 when he was raped and beaten by two older boys at a juvenile detention center.
He was 17 when he began having sex with Herbert Hamilton, a 50-year-old man who preyed on children and sold prescription pills to neighborhood kids in exchange for money. And he was 17 when he killed Hamilton, stabbing and bludgeoning him to death before pouring gasoline all over his body. Williams tried to start a fire, but failed. He scribbled “I loved you” in toothpaste on Hamilton’s bathroom mirror before he left.
Six months later, Williams still hadn’t been caught. On one June night, 56-year-old Norwood coerced Williams into meeting him at a dark parking lot. It was there that Williams says Norwood pushed him up against a car and began having sex with him. Williams, bleeding, begged him to stop. The next day, Williams and a friend beat Norwood to death in a cemetery. This time, the police found him. It was 1984.
Today, more than 30 years later, the case continues.
Before we go forward, let’s go back to Williams’s childhood. Yes, he was a victim of a traumatic, almost unimaginable level of childhood sexual violence. But to understand this story, you must understand that the anguish didn’t stop there. Williams was never safe.
He was young, black, and poor in 1980s Philadelphia, where opportunity was scarce and violence prevalent. Half of his eighth-grade basketball team ended up in prison, three of them convicted of murder.
But outside was still better than inside. At home, Williams was subjected to violence as extreme as it was relentless. Williams’s mother was incessantly abusive, inflicting cruel and sadistic physical pain on her children. His day-to-day life was defined by her abuse—throwing Williams and his siblings down the stairs in public, slapping them, punching them until blood pooled on the ground. And Williams, the youngest child, had it the worst.
The abuse was particularly bad when they were alone, but his mother also had a thirst for public violence. More than once she beat him bloody in front of teachers and other students as they cried out for her to stop. One of Williams’s friends recounted one incident in the school hallway.
[His mother] was beating him in the head and back as he tried to get away from her. He had his arms over his head, trying to protect himself and was begging her to stop. I think the most horrifying part of this was the trail of blood that was following Terry. He was attempting to cover his head and face as he hurried down the steps past all of us, but I could tell the blood was coming from his face. It was one of the worst things I've ever seen.
This wasn’t just misguided discipline. "One time my mother poured hot boiling water on me when I was a toddler," Williams's sister stated. "I remember being in the hospital after my mother burnt me. The nurses would put white towels on the floor and try to help me walk. I would look behind me and see my own bloody footprints on the towels."
Things only got worse when Williams’s mother married his stepfather, a violent and paranoid man who became especially cruel when he drank. His sister and brother moved out soon after, leaving him alone to deal with the abuse by the time he was 10.
It was relentless. His stepfather, leveling his rifle at his mom and then at the boy, threatening to kill them, cracking his mother’s skull with a lead blackjack so badly she had to get her scalp stitched shut. His mother swinging a frozen steak into his stepfather’s jaw with such force that a few of his back teeth were knocked out. His mother, throwing Williams down a flight of stairs and then making him stand so she could punch and slap him more. His stepfather storming in and shoving him in the shower so hard that he slammed his head against the wall.
His mother would sometimes disappear for weeks, trying to escape the violence. But she never brought her child with her. She told him once that just she did not love him in the way a parent was supposed to love their child.
Each time she ran away, he was left alone in the house with his stepfather, wondering if his mother would return. Meanwhile, his stepfather would come home drunk and angry, ready to take it out on the boy. Williams once tried to lock himself in a room to avoid getting attacked, but his stepdad just broke through the door.
Police eventually arrested Williams for both murders and, in 1986, he faced two separate trials, first for Hamilton’s death and then for Norwood’s. During the first trial, the jury was given only sparse details of Hamilton’s sexual abuse of Williams. Still, just a few details were enough—the jury only found Williams guilty of third degree murder.
Prosecutor Andrea Foulkes was disappointed by the ruling. She and the Philadelphia DA’s office were hoping to convict him of first degree murder so they’d have a chance at a death penalty conviction. And she may have gotten it, if only the jury hadn’t learned a few of the sordid details of Williams and Hamilton’s relationship.
The second trial looked similar to the first—Williams in the defendant’s chair, Foulkes at the prosecution table. Foulkes still had her sights set on getting Williams sentenced to death, and this was her chance. But she knew it wasn’t going to happen if the jury found out that Norwood had preyed on Williams and other young boys. So this time, she made sure the details of sexual abuse and rape were left out of the case entirely. The jury was not informed that Norwood had been raping and abusing Williams since he was 13. In fact, there was no discussion of their sexual relationship at all. From Mother Jones:
Foulkes told the Norwood jury that Williams had killed him "for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home." She continued:
"He has taken two lives, two innocent lives of persons who were older and perhaps unable certainly to defend themselves against the violence that he inflicted upon them. He thought of no one but himself, and he had no reason to commit these crimes."
This wasn't the only massive disadvantage that Williams faced in the second trial.
For one thing, he was facing the death penalty, and his lawyer was nowhere to be found. He and his attorney didn’t even meet until one day before jury selection began. He requested another lawyer immediately, explaining to the judge that this was his first time even meeting defense counsel. The lawyer admitted as much, telling the judge that he relied on an associate for “a lot of the detail work” in the case. He defended himself by explaining that the prison was in an inconvenient location for visits. But when the judge asked defense counsel where Williams was incarcerated, he hesitated, looking to his client for the answer. The only guy standing between Williams and the death penalty, and he couldn’t even tell you where his client lived. Still, the judge denied Williams’s request for new counsel.
Things only got worse. Defense counsel "made no attempt to learn the details of the previous case, even though they knew it would be used against him if he was convicted." His lawyer also failed to introduce all the obvious mitigating evidence of abuse, torture, rape, and pain during the penalty phase of Williams's trial. In fact, he and his associate failed to even look into Williams’ abusive past. And because Williams didn’t know his lawyer or particularly trust him, he wasn’t forthcoming about the fact that Norwood had abused him for years of his childhood.
It was later determined that his attorney’s actions were serious enough to qualify as ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. Years after Williams’s case, both his main attorney and the associate were disbarred.
As the defense counsel floundered, prosecutors were doing whatever they could to ensure the death penalty. First, they introduced a ton of questionable evidence. Prosecutors cut a deal with the guy who helped Williams kill Norwood, a man clearly motivated to say whatever he needed to to get a better deal. (He later renounced much of his testimony.)
The Atlantic also found that some of the mental health examinations presented by the prosecution were problematic.
Prosecutors cited the reports of doctors who purportedly "examined" Williams in 1983 and 1984, in the months before he committed the Norwood murder. None of those doctors spent any significant time reviewing Williams' record or interviewing Williams himself, however, and [in 2012], one of them recanted his original diagnosis, confessing that he and his colleagues routinely rushed through such examinations to minimize the "backlog" of pending cases.
The prosecution’s jury selection process also seems to have been influenced by race—14 of the 16 jurors that the prosecutors struck down were black. This despite the fact that black people made up less than half of the potential jurors.
But the jury, of course, knew none of this—not about the defense counsel’s incompetence, or that some of the evidence was shoddy, or that 51-year-old Norwood had raped 13-year-old Williams for four years. To them, Williams looked like a brutal murderer killing people he barely knew for fun.
In 1986, they sentenced him to death.
Fast forward 26 years.
It was September 2012, and Terry Williams had just a few days left to live. Over the years he had gained support from community members outside of the prison, many of whom were making desperate efforts to save his life as the minutes dwindled away. "Dozens of former prosecutors" had written a letter to the governor calling for him to commute his sentence, and more than 350,000 people signed a petition asking the governor to grant Williams clemency.
Even five of the jurors that voted in favor of his execution in 1986 signed affidavits stating that they would have voted differently had they known that Williams and Norwood had been sexually involved.
But despite all of that, neither the courts nor the governor budged. The window of hope was narrowing by the minute. It looked like Williams would be the first person involuntarily executed in Pennsylvania in 50 years.
Then, his last-minute appeal landed in front of Judge Teresa Sarmina. Sarmina, a former prosecutor, began looking closely at the details of the case. Sensing that something wasn’t right, she ordered Foulkes to testify and had the police department's homicide files and the DA’s trial documents brought in. The Open File reports:
Ms. Foulkes testi[fied] in Judge Sarmina’s court that she had “not a scintilla of evidence that Mr. Williams had actually had any sexual relationship with Mr. Norwood,” telling the court that all witnesses asked about Mr. Norwood’s homosexual tendencies “all said no." Ms. Foulkes also stated that she had “no information from Reverend Poindexter (a Reverend at the same church where Mr. Norwood worked and allegedly pursued sexual relationships with teen boys) at the time there was anything untoward at the church.”
But Foulkes was blatantly lying. From Penn Live:
Foulkes’ personal notes show — in her own handwriting — that she knew a mother in the congregation claimed Norwood had touched the genitals of her 16-year-old son.
Foulkes also wrote, “Heard from others about possible incidents.”
And, “Minister is one of Terry’s johns.”
Sarmina handed Foulkes these notes on the stand following her testimony that she had no idea about Norwood’s interest in young boys. Foulkes paused, flustered, before saying she "didn't remember" the notes. But she admitted to Sarmina her suspicion of a "sexual connection" between Williams and Norwood, stating, "Of course it occurred to me."
Reviewing the evidence of Williams’s conviction led Sarmina to believe that his trial had been tainted by misconduct and the defense counsel’s lack of preparation. Specifically, Sarmina found that Foulkes lied to the jury and committed a Brady violation by failing to disclose exculpatory evidence. “Judge Sarmina wrote in the Williams case that the paperwork involving the victim, Amos Norwood, had been "sanitized." This was a polite way of putting it,” says Mother Jones. “The prosecution had omitted portions of two witness statements before turning them over, thereby eliminating the evidence of Norwood's sexual proclivities.”
Foulkes knew better than anyone what happened in Williams’ first murder case, and knew that the sexual relationship between Williams and Norwood might have affected the jury's willingness to convict him of first degree murder and impart the death penalty. From Sarmina's decision:
This Court found that the third degree verdict in the Hamilton case colored Ms. Foulkes’ decisions when she prosecuted appellee for the murder of Amos Norwood. First, Ms. Foulkes identified what she believed to be the reason that the jury returned a “compromised” verdict. And then she attempted to eliminate evidence which caused the “compromised” verdict from being presented to the jury.
[T]his Court is disheartened to say that her actions leading up to and during the Norwood trial demonstrate that she only wanted the jury to see the evidence over which she exerted control…This Court concluded that intentionally rooting that evidence out of the Norwood case in order to secure a death sentence amounted to ‘gamesmanship’
In 2012, Judge Sarmina granted a stay of Williams' execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing, in large part due to the evidence of Foulkes’ prosecutorial misconduct. It wasn’t a new trial, and technically Williams’ conviction wouldn’t change. But this was a chance to save his life. A new sentencing hearing would give a jury the chance to hear all the evidence they had missed out on the first time.
But Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams wouldn’t have it. He was furious with Sarmina’s ruling, and he and his team wanted the original death penalty conviction to stick. He immediately appealed Sarmina's decision. Instead of a new sentencing hearing, they were all headed to the state Supreme Court to have the bench determine if Sarmina’s decision was valid.
A new appeal. A new chance. A new fight. Somehow, things managed to get even crazier.
I recently wrote about the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, an extremely powerful bench plagued with scandals, turnover, and contentious politics. There’s been a lot of turnover on the court these past few years, but back in 2012, Chief Justice Ronald Castille was running the show. Castille knew a little too much about the Williams case. After all, he was the Philadelphia DA during the original trial. In fact, it was actually Castille who approved Williams' death penalty charge, signing the necessary papers in 1986.
Not many men love the death penalty as much as Ronald Castille. As prosecutor, he has sent 45 people to death row during his time as a prosecutor, accounting for more than a quarter of death row inmates in the whole state. In the five years before he heard the DA’s appeal of Sarmina's ruling, Castille "ruled in favor of the death penalty 90 percent of the time."
Given the fact that he was head of the office that charged Williams with death, Castille should have recused himself from the case. But he didn’t want to. He was close to the mandatory age of retirement, which meant he’d have to step down from the court soon. He had so few opportunities left to have an influence. Plus, Castille had a contentious relationship with the Federal Community Defender Office— the same group that was defending Williams. He didn’t want to give up the chance to exert a little power. From Mother Jones:
Castille claimed that federal lawyers had no business appearing in state courts. He complained bitterly over the years about their "prolix and abusive pleadings" and about all the resources they dedicated to defending death row inmates—"something one would expect in major litigation involving large law firms."
The defenders, for their part, routinely filed motions arguing that Castille had no business ruling on the appeals of prisoners whose prosecutions he had approved—particularly not in a case in which his office was found to have suppressed evidence helpful to the defense. But as chief justice, Castille had the last word. He denied all such motions, and accused the federal defenders of writing "scurrilously," making "scandalous misrepresentations," and having a "perverse worldview."
In late 2014, the Castille-led Pennsylvania Supreme Court overruled Sarmina’s decision to grant Williams a new hearing. Instead, they decided, his death sentence should be upheld. More than 30 years since he admitted to killing Hamilton and Norwood, Terry Williams was on death row again.
Evidently, the state Supreme Court wasn’t bothered by the prosecution’s blatant violation of the law. They didn't even criticize the prosecutors' failure to disclose evidence in their ruling. Instead, "the court excoriated the defendant for failing to make an issue of his sexual abuse at the hands of the older man." But remember that at the time of his trial, Williams was a teenager who had met his lawyer the day before the trial began. Mother Jones framed the court’s criticism of Williams perfectly: “Did the prosecutors truly expect a teenager facing a possible death sentence to have a frank discussion about his sexual victimization with a court-appointed lawyer he'd just met?”
For his part, Castille was unapologetically biased in favor of the prosecution. In his concurrence, the former prosecutor "warned the lower courts not to let themselves be turned into circuses with the defenders as 'ringmasters.'” And he upbraided Sarmina for letting Williams' lawyers scour the government's files. The information they revealed, he wrote, had “smeared Norwood's character.”
After the state Supreme Court's decision, Gov. Corbett set a new execution date for Williams—March 4, 2015. But the fight wasn’t over yet.
Corbett, a Republican, lost his 2014 bid for re-election to Democrat Tom Wolf. After being sworn in last January, Wolf made the extraordinary decision to save Williams’s life again. Wolf granted "reprieve to Terry Williams and any other inmate facing execution until a state task force completed a study of the death penalty and officials had a chance to act on its recommendations.” According to Mother Jones, “Wolf listed race discrimination, bad lawyering, high costs, and the threat of executing an innocent man among the reasons for his decision."
But a moratorium, of course, isn’t permanent, and its certainly not clear what will happen to the state’s death penalty. Meanwhile, prosecutors are fighting to the death—quite literally— to get William’s capital sentence back on the table. They’ve come at the case from all angles: attacking the governor for implementing the moratorium, smearing Williams’s name, and defending his trial.
The district attorney’s office immediately appealed Wolf's moratorium, despite the fact that "Pennsylvania governors had been granting reprieves for hundreds of years and no court had ever struck one down." Despite this, the DA is fighting the governor’s power to instate a moratorium and contesting his reason for doing so—“namely that the system of capital punishment was ‘riddled with flaws, making it error-prone, expensive, and anything but infallible.’” The constitutionality of the moratorium is currently in the hands of the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, District Attorney Williams has persistently defended the actions of prosecutors in this case. He’s stated that this case had no elements of racism, apparently forgetting the jury selection process. He’s also claimed that Terry Williams had adequate counsel at trial, despite the fact that a court had already decided otherwise. Somehow, this district attorney is clearly comfortable with the fact that the defendant didn’t even meet his attorney before he went on trial for capital murder.
Much about this case is unfathomable, but two primary questions remain. First, why has the prosecution consistently refused to consider Williams’ sexual trauma?
Their unwillingness to acknowledge child abuse and rape, especially in a place like Philadelphia, is especially confounding. As Mother Jones has pointed out, Sarmina’s 2012 decision came at a notable time in the state. The attorney general’s office had recently prosecuted high-profile cases involving the sexual abuse of minors, including Jerry Sandusky (the Penn State coach that was convicted of abusing 10 boys), and at least three Catholic priests. While not in the Philadelphia district attorney’s jurisdiction, these local scandals nonetheless saturated the news cycle.
Back then, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams claimed to understand the trauma that sexual abuse can cause and the reasons that victims fail to report it. "It is extremely difficult for sexual abuse victims to admit that the assault happened, and then to actually report the abuse to authorities can be even harder for them," he said in 2012.
Yet recently the DA’s office once again denied Williams’ victimization using a more dated and harmful logic—his claims of sexual abuse were probably lies, since "not one of the purported incidents was contemporaneously reported to medical or law enforcement officials."
In fact, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office has continually framed Williams as a scheming prostitute instead of a traumatized victim. They called the murders "hate crimes," and Williams’ claims of abuse “self-serving.” From Mother Jones:
[D]uring a televised debate, Seth Williams [said that] Terry Williams... "brutally beat to death two gay men because he was extorting them." This was a bewildering claim from the head of an office that prosecuted hundreds of sexual-abuse cases a year: You could spend decades digging through the Philadelphia court dockets and be hard-pressed to find a case in which teenage boys hired to service middle-aged men were charged with extortion.
This failure to recognize Williams as a child abuse victim has been criticized in the past. When one prosecutor said that the Williams’ actions were due to "gay-prostitute rage," he provoked outrage— not only among Williams’s supporters but also from survivors of sexual assault. In fact, survivor “coalitions” from 16 states wrote a letter to the DA’s office, “condemning the Philly DA for the ‘ill-informed stereotypes’ his office was perpetuating.”
"By any definition—legal, ethical, psychological—a sexual encounter between a 13-year-old child and a 51-year-old man is rape," the letter stated. "To call this 'prostitution' and imply agency and willing participation on the part of a 13-year-old boy is unacceptable."
But the DA’s office is steadfast in their refusal. Recently, a spokesman for the DA called the murders "hate crimes" and said "it is well past time for some skepticism about [Williams'] self-serving claims.”
The prosecution’s framing of him as a young scheming prostitute indicates that they have not wrestled with the fact that Williams was a child. According to them, the 50-year-old child rapist is the innocent one.
There is still one last question. Why Williams?
Why is the cash-strapped and overworked Philadelphia DA’s office wasting its resources on ensuring Williams is killed by the state? He is responsible for the murders, which he does not deny. His conviction has yet to be at issue here. The only thing at issue is his sentence. The only question is whether or not he should die.
Pennsylvania isn’t one of those states that executes people regularly. It’s happened three times in 50 years, and each time the defendant did not appeal the sentence, preferring to go forward with lethal injection. And yet, the DA refuses to relent. Why?
Because they want the win. They want the notch on their belt. After all, this is the only death penalty case in the state that hasn’t been reversed in many years. How impressive they would be if they won this one. They aren’t looking for justice. They are looking for victory.
Back in 2012, right before Williams was going to be executed, one of his lawyers pleaded with the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. At the time, all of Williams’ attempts to appeal his case had failed. But, his attorney begged, "is that a reason to kill this battered, sexually abused, barely 18-year-old kid?" From Mother Jones:
Just the previous week, he reminded the board, one of the prosecutors had been asked, "Why are you fighting so hard to execute this man? After 50 years of no executions like that, why this man?"
Pennsylvania's attorney general, one of the presiding board members, asked whether Nolan was "seriously contending" that the DA's office was "pursuing this merely because they won the case?"
"Yes," Nolan replied.
Minutes later, an assistant district attorney representing the DA's office told the board that it was "no secret that the reason we're here today, and the reasons these proceedings are unfamiliar, is that this is the only contested Pennsylvania death penalty case that has not been reversed by either state or federal court in many years."
There is good news, at least relatively. The U.S. Supreme Court has granted writ on a specific issue in Williams’ case. His attorneys are asking the court to find that his Eighth and 14th Amendment rights were violated when Castille failed to recuse himself. They are also asking the court whether "the bias of one tribunal member impermissibly taints the judgment of the whole tribunal, regardless of whether the biased member cast the deciding vote." The Supreme Court will hear arguments next year.
And look: Perhaps Williams has a real chance. The state Supreme Court looks much different than it did this time last year, with five of the seven justices now Democrats. His future is still very much up in the air, but news is presumably coming soon—the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not the death penalty moratorium is legal by the end of this year. If they rule against the governor, Williams’ future is in peril.
Until then, Williams waits. And waits. And waits.
[Ed. note: Last week, after this piece was filed, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of Governor Wolf. “We find no limitation on the executive reprieve power relating to the duration of the reprieve, so long as it is temporary in nature and operates only for an interval of time. Additionally, we find no support for the proposition that the Governor must provide a particular explanation for his reprieve for it to be constitutionally sound.”
The ruling hinged largely on the fact that the moratorium is temporary and specific only to Williams. An executive order ending the death penalty, or any additional moratoriums in other cases, would have to be assessed by the court.
"In 300 years, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to interfere with any Governor's act of clemency, and today the Court unanimously adhered to that tradition,” said a statement released by Williams’ attorneys. “Governor Wolf's action was indistinguishable from actions taken by previous Pennsylvania Governors and Governors of numerous other states. All of them have used reprieves to establish moratoria on executions while problems with the death penalty system are examined. The Court today recognized that Governor Wolf's reprieve in Terry Williams' case fits well within the scope of a Governor's constitutional authority. This decision is entirely appropriate in light of Pennsylvania's deeply flawed capital punishment system."]