The weight of child abuse: Should a killer's horrific childhood matter in deciding his fate?

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Throughout his childhood, Terry Williams, now 46, suffered unspeakable physical and sexual abuse. In 1984, soon after turning 18, Williams killed Amos Norwood, a 56-year-old Philadelphia man who had been sexually abusing him for five years and had raped him the night before the murder.

Following Williams' conviction, as it considered his sentence, the jury heard of another murder Williams had committed. The jury sentenced him to death. Yet neither the lawyers who represented Williams nor the jury knew that both men whom Williams killed had been abusing him. Terry Williams had not said a word. Now he faces execution in Pennsylvania on Oct. 3 and all of that history is being revisited.

The state Board of Pardons voted 3-2 in favor of clemency on Monday but a unanimous vote is needed to send a clemency recommendation to the governor. That likely leaves Williams' fate in the hands of Gov. Tom Corbett, although a Common Pleas judge has agreed to hear testimony Thursday about the claims of sexual abuse.

Victims of child sexual abuse face a monumental crossroad in the decision to disclose their abuse. Some get help, heal their emotional wounds and get on with their lives. Others don't tell their story, sometimes for months, years or ever. Later, they might hurt themselves or others. When we come upon them, we are left with questions: Why didn't they tell? Should we believe them? Should they get a "pass" or "discount" for the harm done to them and subsequent dysfunctions and behaviors? How should they be held accountable?

Trauma experts are now demonstrating convincingly that exposure to violence in childhood can create lasting psychological damage and even physiological changes to the brain as it develops. Subsequent experiences of depression, inability to trust, health problems and even acts of aggression and violence can all find root in early childhood experiences. Notions of personal responsibility and accountability get turned around. The trauma-focused question shifts from "what did you do?" to "what happened to you?"

What happened to the child Terry Williams can help us understand why he was driven to kill, and why he did not disclose any of his trauma to police or lawyers. And understanding might lead us to revisit how we think about punishment and responsibility, forgiveness and justice.

As a child, Williams was subjected to brutal violence. A nationally recognized child abuse expert who examined him referred to his "mother's savagery." Beaten with belts, fists, extension cords and switches, he sometimes begged his abusive mother to "beat me at home" instead of in front of other children in the neighborhood. According to the expert's report on Williams, his teachers witnessed incidents at his schools in which his mother punched him in the face and threw him down a flight of stairs. Yet no adult came to the boy's aid.

When he was 6 years old, Williams was raped by an older boy. He bravely told his mother, but she didn't help him. He would go on to be sexually assaulted by numerous older boys and older men for the next 12 years. Desperate for a father figure, his sexual identity confused and scorned, his home life violent and chaotic, Williams was easy prey.

One of the abusers who caused Williams the most emotional pain was an elementary school teacher whom he met again as a young teen. Using grooming methods that have become all too familiar to anyone who followed the criminal proceedings of serial child predator Jerry Sandusky, the former teacher bought him food, clothes, a bicycle and gave him rides to school before he began raping him. Williams was devastated by this man's actions. It is unconscionable that a trusted authority figure, a public school teacher who should have helped Williams, would use this broken boy for his adult sexual gratification.

In his adolescence, Williams became acquainted with two significantly older men. Both were authority figures in positions of power, one in a church, the other as a local sports booster. According to Williams, these men sexually abused and exploited the boy. After years of rape, when he was 17 and 18 years old, Williams killed these two men, Herbert Hamilton and Amos Norwood.

Williams now says that he was too frightened and ashamed to tell the truth. With some of this history now corroborated but other parts of the story unconfirmed except for his accounts, should we believe him? With caregivers failing him and perpetrators mocking him, Williams was taught how to feel that fear and shame. Like so many child victims of rape, it seems reasonable that Williams felt unable to tell his story for many years, and he was sentenced to die as a direct consequence of that shame.

Pedophiles and sexual predators depend on their victims' silence. They are able to operate because their victims are too ashamed and frightened to speak out. As Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly said of the Sandusky victims who took so long to come forward, sexual abuse "is a crime which thrives in darkness. It's fed by fear and threats, shame and secrecy while predators carefully seek the most vulnerable prey while often they themselves are cloaked in respectability that is sometimes beyond reproach."

A person like Terry Williams must be held responsible for his crimes. But should he die for the murder of men who raped him as an adolescent?

Five jurors from Williams' trial now say that if they had known the whole truth, they would have voted for life in prison instead of death. So too, the widow of Amos Norwood, who supports commuting Terry's death sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

The child welfare system provides a safety net for kids whose families can't or won't protect them from harm. But some kids fall through the cracks. Terry Williams was one of those kids. Compassion and understanding suggest that what happened to Terry Williams should influence what happens to him next.

opinion_commentary

Frank P. Cervone is executive director of the Support Center for Child Advocates, which is based in Philadelphia (fcervone@ advokid.org).


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