Should Gov. Corbett Execute Raped Philly Teen?

Plus: 3 reasons why the death penalty is always wrong.

At a mere 13 years old, Terrance Williams started getting raped by 51-year-old Amos Norwood. Repeatedly. For five years, until he had just barely turned 18. And it wasn’t only Norwood abusing this kid. He was first raped at age six by a neighbor. And later, there was another man, namely 49-year-old Herbert Hamilton, who began raping him at 17. In addition to this hellish long-term sexual abuse by these three, and then two other adults, there was hellish long-term physical abuse from his mother and alcoholic step-father.

Despite such horrors, Terry miraculously seemed to be able not only to function normally but to excel. He was the star quarterback at Germantown High, and in 1983, he selected Cheyney University from among the eight colleges that recruited him. But the miracle wasn’t really a miracle. It was deeply suppressed shame, denial, victimization and rage. And it reached the surface in a violent explosion of death, when he uncontrollably lashed out against two of his five adult abusers by stabbing a nude Herbert Hamilton in January 1984, and—at just three months past his 18th birthday—by beating Mr. Norwood with a tire-iron in June that year and leaving his charred body propped up against a headstone at the Ivy Hill Cemetery on Cheltenham Avenue.

He was arrested following information provided by an alleged accomplice, Marc Draper, a local cop’s son, who got a deal to avoid the death penalty and became a prosecution witness. Terrance was found guilty of third-degree murder in 1985 for the death of Hamilton and first-degree murder the following year for killing Norwood. And for that, he was sentenced to death in 1986. End of case? End of story? No. In fact, it’s just the beginning.

Five jurors who had sentenced him to death recently said they would have voted for life if they had known about the long-term sexual abuse by Norwood and Hamilton—as well as the abuse from other adults. But the trial lawyer never told them. And the federal district court on appeal concluded that although the lawyer’s “penalty phase performance was constitutionally ineffective,” it did not warrant a new trial. What? In a death penalty case involving the execution of a mere teen who obviously and completely relied on his supposedly experienced adult lawyer to effectively represent him? Outrageous.

And speaking of outrage, don’t get me started on the racism here. However, I must ask this: Why did the D.A.’s office, in the murder trial of a black kid, use 14 of its 16 peremptory challenges to get rid of black potential jurors? And why is it that prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Roper v. Simmons ruling outlawing child executions, the only two juveniles on Pennsylvania’s death row were black, Philadelphians Kevin Hughes and Percy Lee, one as young as 16? Whatever happened to “evolving standards of decency” that our civilized society brags about? And why is it that a third juvenile, then 17-year-old, serial killing Harvey Robinson of Allentown, had his death penalty thrown out for those 1992 murders four years before the Roper decision? I wonder why. Maybe, just maybe, it might have had something to do with the fact that he’s white. That’s just a guess though. But I digress.

Back to the point. In addition to those five jurors from the Terrance Williams case, more than 20 former judges and prosecutors, more than 30 law school professors, and 40 mental health professionals are on a petition that Williams’s new defense team filed with Gov. Corbett’s five-member Board of Pardons. The attorneys are not seeking a pardon. Instead, they’re merely requesting that the board at its September 17th public hearing, recommend clemency in the form of a commutation of death, which is slated for October 3rd, to life without the possibility of parole. And joining in this request is Mamie Norwood, Amos’s widow. Since she doesn’t want the state to kill the teen who murdered her husband 28 years ago, why should we?

Not only should we not want to execute him, we shouldn’t want to execute anyone. Here are three very good reasons (among many others) why:

1. State and federal governments can’t even fix potholes and bridges. How the hell are they gonna get killing right? In other words, what if a witness or a cop or lab technician or a prosecutor or a judge or a juror makes a mistake leading to the death of a defendant? Does the system provide for a “back-from-the-dead” do-over? In the words of Presiding Nuremberg Judge, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, state legislator, and Navy veteran Michael Musmanno in 1940, “Can an innocent person be executed? Can it happen? It has happened!”

Just ask Thomas and Meeks Griffin, two prominent, wealthy, and so-called uppity black landowning farmers who were pardoned in 2009 by the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardons in a 7-0 vote; the two brothers had been falsely accused and fried alive (along with two other falsely accused black men, Nelson Brice and John Crosby) in the electric chair in 1915 for the 1913 murder of a white Confederate War vet.

Just ask mentally disabled Joe Arridy, with a so-called “imbecile” IQ of just 46, who was pardoned last year by Governor Bill Ritter after Colorado executed him in 1939 for a 1936 murder that he clearly didn’t commit and that another man had previously confessed to.

Just ask Lena Baker who was pardoned in Georgia in 2005 after, in 1945, having been the first and only woman electrocuted in the state. This followed a 1944 attack by a white employer who had attacked this black woman, threatened her with an iron bar, and held her against her will as a slave for three days in his grist mill. During her escape attempt, she was forced to shoot him in self-defense. Her trial was presided over by Judge William “Two Gun” Worrill. She was tried, found guilty, and sentenced by an all-white, all-male jury in one day shortly after the lunch break.

Since 1973, at least 140 innocent death-row inmates throughout the country have been released. Six were from Pennsylvania. Therefore, either abolish this state-sanctioned murder or, at the very least, make the criminal justice system require more than the mere “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden during the penalty phase of a trial: It should require absolute certainty because the only mulligans are in golf, not in capital punishment.

2. Any physician who actively participates in executions, as required by state and federal law, violates the Hippocratic Oath. By the way, the use of physicians in connection with the death penalty is not approved by the American Medical Association. Therefore, a physician’s license could be revoked for violating the oath.

3. And finally, to the proponents of capital punishment who argue “eye for an eye,” why don’t we in Pennsylvania and everywhere else rob robbers and kidnap kidnappers? Even better, let’s hire a taxpayer-funded, state-salaried employee to rape rapists. Barbaric? Inhumane? Uncivilized? I rest my case.

Around The Web

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • David

    God Bless you Michael. You said this better then anybody else could have. I believe Terry’s last option in court is tomorrow’s ruling by Judge Sarmina. Other than that there is only the clemency board and even if this makes it to the governors desk, why would he reverse himself after he has already signed the death warrant? Shame on the State and everybody that has a hand in this attempted killing.

  • davefrisch1

    On the subject of sparing the life of Terrance Williams; agreed. It may be a miscarriage of justice to execute him. However, as to the reasons why the death penalty is “always” wrong, I believe there are some serious problems in this reasoning.
    Stating that the federal government can’t fix potholes and bridges, and then parlaying that into a reason why they can’t get executions right is a false cause logical fallacy as they are not related. That is like saying that you don’t trust the surgeon to operate on you because he can’t fix your plumbing. In fact, it is also an appeal to emotion due to the sensitivity of the subject. Yes, there have been gross miscarriages of justice, and the Joe Arridy case is a perfect example. However, the true crime was committed by a media obsessed sheriff who wanted one more headline in the papers, and railroaded a series of varying confessions from Joseph. Additionally, the trial lawyer who represented Joe Arridy was incompetent in this case, the Colorado governor was ignorant of the facts and made no effort to educate himself, and the media of the time had made up its own mind long before trial, and continued the governor’s mistakes of ignorance. The argument here is that mistakes are made, and they are irreversible. Nobody can argue that mistakes happen in the execution of individuals, and to argue this is pointless. This comes down to a personal decision on how to judge the death penalty in a cost benefit analysis. For each of us the weights and measurements will be different.
    On the subject about physician death penalty participation violating the Hippocratic Oath, I believe a very narrow view is being taken here, and the author has chosen not to educate himself on this subject. Would the author support physician assisted-suicide, or abortion in cases of rape? My guess from reading the brief bio of the author is yes. These circumstances also appear to violate the Hippocratic Oath, but no mention is made on these points. As a result, and in the interest of providing the author with the benefit of the doubt, I will assume that the author would also not support these instances. This then moves us toward the Hippocratic Oath itself. There are several versions of the Hippocratic Oath, and so discussion of the right and wrong of the death penalty as per ‘the’ oath is not appropriate. However, there is currently no legal obligation for anyone to take the oath, nor is the American Medical Association itself a legally binding entity. Instead, it is primarily a lobbying organization for medical professionals. The state licensing boards are the legal entities of which the author should refer, and no U.S. medical board has disciplined a doctor for taking part in an execution, and that is unlikely to change. Additionally, true physicians generally are not required for executions.
    As to the eye for an eye counter argument, burglarizing, raping, or other forms of retaliation are certainly considered cruel and unusual, although this definition may also change with time. I would agree; eye for an eye is a poor argument to employ.
    The death penalty has been established as a method of removing threats from society that are clear dangers. So too is life imprisonment. The question that is difficult for us to come to a conclusion and answer in a meaningful way is which is worse? That answer will likely be different for everyone involved. Ultimately, this is always an opinion, and our conclusions are rarely drawn from facts. As humans we have a funny way of trying to avoid being wrong, even more silly is that we often try to pass opinions on as factual evidence and reasons for our cause, even when we are both wrong and right as non-factual opinions often are. Do I believe the death penalty is right or wrong? I don’t know. What I do know is that there are better methods for coming to conclusions than some those disclosed above.

    This isn’t necessarily the case with this article, but many of us would do well to remember this;