If the death penalty is going to survive in an era when public attitudes on capital punishment have become less supportive, its proponents must choose their cases carefully. Terrance Williams will never be the poster child for state-run execution.
On Monday, the state Board of Pardons rejected a bid for clemency -- and a sentence of life in prison without parole -- for the convicted murderer. On Oct. 3, unless a court intervenes or Gov. Tom Corbett relents, he will become the first Pennsylvania inmate to be executed since 1999. Indeed, the state hasn't executed an inmate who has contested his sentence since 1962.
Williams was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy in the death of Amos Norwood in Philadelphia in 1986. Now 46, he is said to be remorseful for his crimes, but that alone wouldn't argue against his date with the executioner. Something else dreadful complicates his case.
He claims that he was raped as a youth by several men, including the man he was charged with killing and another man he killed earlier. He also was beaten by his mother and stepfather. Prosecutors take the position that he did not mention this at the time and he has every incentive to make it up. But a clinical psychologist testified that piecemeal revelations of past sex abuse are typical.
What is beyond doubt is that many people believe him or are at least prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Three of the five members of the pardons board recommended clemency, most tellingly including Attorney General Linda Kelly, but clemency in this state requires a unanimous vote. A wide variety of people -- former judges and prosecutors and child advocates among them -- support clemency, as do the state's Catholic bishops and 350,000 signers of an online petition.
On Thursday, a judge in Philadelphia heard arguments based on the allegation of sex abuse and the hearing will continue Monday. In a state recently sensitized to the child abuse problem by Jerry Sandusky's grim crimes, Williams' death would make the worse possible argument for the death penalty, amplified by the fact that his execution would be the first in a long time. Life without parole is more sensible and just in this case.