HARRISBURG -- Convicted killer Terrance Williams survived his execution warrant Wednesday as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to throw out a stay granted last week by a Philadelphia judge.
The 46-year-old prisoner had been scheduled to die by lethal injection Wednesday night until Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of the Court of Common Pleas ordered a halt to the execution and a new sentencing hearing. After a three-day hearing in Philadelphia, the judge found prosecutors had concealed evidence that could have been used to argue Williams should not be put to death.
The state asked the high court to throw out the stay of execution, but it declined to do so in an unsigned order released Wednesday afternoon.
Even with a new sentencing phase ordered, state officials remained on standby earlier Wednesday in case the Supreme Court overturned the lower court's order and the execution was allowed to go ahead. Designated media witnesses had been told to monitor their email for instructions to travel to the State Correctional Institution Rockview, in Bellefonte, where executions take place.
Williams was still at his home prison in Greene County when one of his attorneys called to tell him of the high court's decision, said Victor Abreu, one of his attorneys.
"This was a very anxious day for him, and he's obviously very, very relieved and happy," Mr. Abreu said.
He said the Supreme Court order confirmed the decision to grant a stay was "legally and factually sound."
The warrant signed by Gov. Tom Corbett expired at midnight, so a future execution would require a new warrant. Williams would have been the first prisoner Pennsylvania had put to death since 1999, and the first put to death without giving up his appeals since 1962.
In a statement, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams noted that although the request for immediate review had been denied, the case would proceed as a normal appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
"This is not the first time the prosecution has appealed a capital case, and it probably won't be the last," he said. "As I've explained, I have been very selective about seeking the death penalty. But I continue to believe that this defendant received an appropriate sentence, and that his new claims are not true.
The Supreme Court will now have the time to look at all the facts."
Had the high court thrown out the stay, the attorneys defending Williams could have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court or looked to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, which previously had voted 3-2 for clemency, short of the unanimous recommendation needed for the governor to act. Members of the board had prepared to meet by telephone if necessary, said Chad Saylor, a spokesman for Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who chairs the board.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141. First Published October 3, 2012 8:00 PM