Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Philadelphia death penalty case gets February Supreme Court date

December 30, 2015 by NCC Staff


A Philadelphia man convicted of capital murder in 1986 is set for a February 2016 Supreme Court hearing in a sentencing dispute.

paSupremeCt640On February 29, 2016, the full U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Williams v. Pennsylvania.

In October 2015, Terrance Williams saw the Supreme Court accepted an appeal on Eighth and 14th Amendment ground in an appeals process that goes back to 2012. At the time, Williams’ defense wanted then-Pennsylvania Supreme Court chief justice Ron Castille recused from his appeals case, since Castille had been the Philadelphia district attorney when Williams was convicted in 1986 for killing another Philadelphia man, Amos Norwood.

In 2012, Castille voted with four other Pennsylvania supreme court justices, in a unanimous decision, to overturn a lower court state ruling that found Williams should have a new penalty phase in his murder trial and that his execution order should be stayed. Before that ruling, Castille declined to recuse himself from deliberations.

Link: Read the 2012 ruling

Williams’ attorneys are seeking answers from the United States Supreme Court related to two prior decisions. First, in a 2009 decision called Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., the Supreme Court said the West Virginia Supreme Court violated the concept of constitutional due process when a judge who cast a deciding vote had taken $3 million in political contributions from a party in the case.

The attorneys also cited a case from 1986, Aetna Life Insurance v. Lavoie, where an Alabama judge had voted in a health insurance case after he had filed several personal legal actions in insurance cases.

The current Supreme Court will decide in the Williams case if a judge or a member of a public tribunal should be disqualified – even if that person’s vote in a decision didn’t affect the final outcome- based on a perceived conflict of interest.

The Williams team is claiming that Castille’s decision to ask for the death penalty for Williams, while he was Philadelphia district attorney, along with Castille’s judicial role in considering allegations of misconduct of his prior district attorney's office, are key factors in the appeal.

In its reply brief, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office said the case should be denied because Williams’ claims that he was constitutionally entitled to Castille’s recusal were without merit and not applicable for review.

In 2014, Castille retired from the Pennsylvania supreme court after reaching a mandatory retirement age.

Recent Stories on Constitution Daily

Constitution Check: Who is right about Puerto Rico’s self-governing status?

Breyer doesn’t see another Korematsu situation in near future

The Supreme Court as a 2016 campaign issue

Sign up for our email newsletter