Execution's stay won't open 'floodgates' in Pennsylvania

| Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, 11:27 p.m.

A Philadelphia judge's decision last week that brought the state back from the brink of its first execution in more than a decade likely won't have much of an impact on the remaining 199 inmates sitting on death row, legal observers say.

“Every one of these decisions is unique and idiosyncratic. Every one has his or her own circumstances, different backgrounds, different crimes,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff. “This won't be precedential, and I don't think the floodgates will open.”

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina on Friday stayed the execution of Terrance Williams, 46, who was scheduled to be put to death on Wednesday for the death of Amos Norwood, 56, a chemist and church volunteer.

Sarmina said prosecutors suppressed evidence that Norwood had sexually abused Williams as a teenager, a mitigating circumstance never heard by the jury that sentenced Williams to death in 1987.

“This case is a perfect storm of what can go wrong with the death penalty,” said Marc Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helps lawyers whose clients face the death penalty. “It's really a learning moment for Pennsylvania.”

Bookman said Williams' case may deter juries from imposing the death penalty.

“It's inconceivable to me that this debacle would encourage our community to seek more executions. I think a lot of people learned from this all the mistakes that can happen, and it shows how frail and full of errors the death penalty can be.”

Inmates on death row should not be too concerned that the state was a mere five days from its first execution in 13 years, said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney.

“The state could speed up the execution process — Texas has eliminated a number of state court appeals — but I have not heard any great hue and cry to streamline the system or make it a quicker road to execution,” Antkowiak said.

Williams' defense team mounted an aggressive last-ditch attempt to stay his execution and commute his sentence from death to life in prison without the possibility of parole because Williams allegedly killed Norwood as a result of years of sexual abuse.

“This isn't a glimmer of new evidence. This is glaring,” Bookman said. “This isn't tiny scraps of new evidence like the district attorney's office would have you believe. This is a banquet, a buffet of new evidence.”

State and federal appellate courts agreed that Williams' public defenders were negligent in not presenting evidence of abuse at trial, but rejected Williams' appeal anyway, ruling that the negligence did not materially impact the jury's verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected his last appeal on June 29.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams denied any wrongdoing in the 1986 trial and said he will appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“I am almost always against using the death penalty,” Seth Williams said. “But this is about process, and I am not going to walk away from doing my job. I will not abdicate my responsibility when the decisions are tough. This is about preserving the integrity of the jury's verdict and sentence.”

Death row inmates in Pennsylvania are much more likely to die in prison than to be executed. Since 1985, 24 death row inmates have died of natural causes and three committed suicide, said Susan McNaughton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections.

Pennsylvania has the fourth-highest number of death row inmates in the country.

“The question that I always ponder is whether there is a consensus to have it on the books and not to carry it out, or if there's a consensus to actually carry out the death penalty,” Antkowiak said.

Six states — Texas, Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama, Arizona and Oklahoma — are responsible for 80 percent of the executions since 2010, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an online database of death row and execution-related facts.

Seventeen states do not have the death penalty.

Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and executed three prisoners between then and 1999, each of whom waived their appeals and asked that their executions be carried out.

Allegheny County's most recent death sentence was for convicted cop killer Richard Poplawski, found guilty of the April 4, 2009, slayings of three Pittsburgh police officers who responded to a domestic violence call at his Stanton Heights home.

The last execution in Pennsylvania was in 1999, when the state put Gary Heidnik of Philadelphia to death for the 1988 kidnapping and torture of six women — two of whom he killed — in what became known as the “House of Horrors.”

Adam Brandolph is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can bereached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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