Why must we go through this again? The death penalty deters no one, is morally dubious and costs a bundle
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Here we go again, arguing over a death penalty case when life without parole would punish the offender just as surely and afford society just as much protection.
Equally important, it would eliminate the time and expense of a death row appeal, not to mention the moral quagmire of executing someone whose childhood was shaped by beatings and sexual abuse.
The subject this time is Terrance Williams, 46, of Philadelphia. In 1984, at age 18, he beat 54-year-old Amos Norwood to death. The jury convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.
The jurors were never told that Williams had been sexually abused for years by the victim, and by a teacher, as well as by an older boy who first raped him when he was 6.
Five of the jurors later signed statements that they would have voted for life in prison without parole if they had known all the facts.
In a separate trial, Williams also was convicted of killing Herbert Hamilton earlier that same year. Court testimony indicated that the victim, 50, had made sexual advances toward him.
Clearly, Williams is dangerous. His history of abuse is tragic and explains a lot about his violent behavior, but it doesn't make him any less a threat to society. Yet that threat can be dealt with just as effectively -- and at less expense -- with a life sentence as it can with the death penalty.
Because of his history of abuse, Williams has become something of a cause celebre. His lawyers say 286,000 people signed a petition asking Gov. Tom Corbett and the state Board of Pardons to commute his sentence to life without parole. Signatories include religious leaders, mental health professionals and child advocates who contend that his crimes were the result of a hellish childhood.
"Terry's acts of violence have, alas, an explanation of the worst sort," advocates for children said in a letter asking for clemency. "Terry lashed out and killed two of the men who sexually abused him and caused him so much pain."
Nevertheless, the governor signed Williams' death warrant on Aug. 9 and the Board of Pardons rejected his a plea for clemency last week. Three of the five board members voted in the inmate's favor -- including Attorney General Linda Kelly -- but a recommendation to commute a death sentence has to be unanimous. In any case, the governor is not required to follow the board's recommendation.
Williams' execution by lethal injection is scheduled for Oct. 3. He would be the first person put to death in Pennsylvania since 1999.
One of those opposing execution is Charles J. Chaput, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, where the church has been struggling with cases of child sexual abuse by some of its priests. On the archdiocese website, the archbishop wrote that execution would teach the "wrongheaded lesson of violence 'fixing' the violent among us."
Even Mamie Norwood, the widow of one of his victims, asked for clemency in a signed declaration filed with the court. She wrote that after years of anger and resentment toward Williams, she decided to forgive him in order to have a "peaceful and happy" life.
"I do not wish to see Terry Williams executed," she wrote, because it would "go against my Christian faith and my belief system."
Religious principles aside, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina granted an emergency hearing for a stay of execution on claims that the prosecutor wrongly withheld evidence of the inmate's history of sexual abuse by the victim.
Among the defense witnesses is Marc Draper, Williams' accomplice, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to second-degree murder and testifying against Williams. Draper, 46, signed a sworn statement that he was ordered by the prosecutor to say that Williams killed Norwood in a robbery, not in a rage over years of being sexually abused by him.
Prosecutors have rejected the claim, pointing to various courts that dismissed it. The hearing continues on Monday.
Maybe Draper is telling the truth, maybe not. But it wouldn't matter if capital punishment was not on the table. Williams would be doing life, end of story. No death-sentence appeals, no petitions for clemency, no emergency hearings seeking stays of execution, no revisiting testimony.
It bears repeating that there's also the added expense of death row, where inmates are housed in single cells that cost the state more than double cells. Security costs are higher, too -- inmates must be accompanied by two guards every time they leave their cells, handcuffed and shackled. Spending money this way while schools and other public services are starved for funding is pointless and counter-productive.
Capital punishment is not a deterrent. States that execute people have higher homicide rates than those that don't. So why pursue it, other than revenge?
All the evidence shows that the death penalty is more trouble than it's worth, and that includes the impending lethal injection of Terrance Williams. It's past time for the law to catch up to reality.
First Published September 23, 2012 12:00 am