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A Push for Clemency as an Execution Nears
By JON HURDLE
PHILADELPHIA — The scheduled execution of a convicted murderer has prompted pleas for clemency from thousands of people who argue that he should be spared because he had been sexually abused by his victim.
The inmate, Terrance Williams, 46, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on Oct. 3 for killing a man after what his supporters say was years of being abused by the victim, as well as by a teacher and an older boy who first raped him when he was 6.
Mr. Williams was 18 in June 1984 when he beat to death Amos Norwood, 56.
Mr. Williams was also found guilty in a separate trial of third-degree murder, which does not carry the death penalty, for the killing in January 1984 of Herbert Hamilton, 50, who had made sexual advances toward him, according to court testimony. Mr. Hamilton was stabbed and beaten to death.
If the execution is carried out, Mr. Williams would be the first convict put to death involuntarily in Pennsylvania since 1962. Since reinstating capital punishment in 1978, Pennsylvania has executed only three people, all of whom asked for death after having exhausted their appeals.
A petition urging Gov. Tom Corbett and the state’s Board of Pardons to commute Mr. Williams’s sentence to life without parole has been signed, his lawyers said, by about 286,000 supporters, including former judges, religious leaders, mental health professionals and 35 advocates for children, who say his crimes resulted from a long history of abuse.
“Terry’s acts of violence have, alas, an explanation of the worst sort,” the advocates for children said in a joint letter in support of clemency. “Terry lashed out and killed two of the men who sexually abused him and caused him so much pain.”
The scheduled execution is opposed by the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput, whose 1.5-million-member archdiocese has been shaken in recent years by evidence that some of its priests abused children.
The archbishop wrote in a weekly column on the archdiocese Web site that Mr. Williams deserved punishment but did not deserve to die because a judicial execution would perpetuate the “wrongheaded lesson of violence ‘fixing’ the violent among us.”
Mr. Norwood’s widow, Mamie, has also asked for clemency for Mr. Williams. Ms. Norwood, 75, wrote that she had been “angry and resentful” toward Mr. Williams for many years but later concluded that the only way to have a “peaceful and happy” life was to forgive him.
“I do not wish to see Terry Williams executed,” Ms. Norwood said in a signed declaration filed with the court, the prosecutor’s office and the Board of Pardons. “His execution would go against my Christian faith and my belief system.”
Pressure on Governor Corbett, a Republican, has also come from the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, a bipartisan group that includes state lawmakers. On Thursday, the panel asked the governor to postpone planned executions until it completes a study of the death penalty and announces its findings in December 2013.
The case continues a recent focus on the sexual abuse of children in Pennsylvania after Jerry Sandusky, a former Pennsylvania State University football coach, was convicted of abusing young boys, and Msgr. William J. Lynn, a former senior official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was convicted of child endangerment for failing to stop abuse by priests under his supervision.
Mr. Williams’s history as a victim of abuse was unknown to the jurors who sentenced him to death in 1986, according to affidavits signed by five of them who said they would have voted instead for life in prison without parole if they had known all the facts.
“I was not aware that the victim in that case had been having sex with Terrance and other teenage boys,” wrote one juror, whose name is redacted in a court document notarized in July. “If I had known those circumstances at that time — what had led him down that path — that definitely would have been a factor and my decision would have been different from the death sentence.”
Pennsylvania does not require judges to instruct jurors in first- and second-degree murder cases that a life sentence means there is no possibility of parole.
All five of the jurors who signed affidavits said they were unaware that if they voted for a life sentence, Mr. Williams would actually be incarcerated for the rest of his life.
“If I had known that a life sentence meant life without parole, I personally would have voted for a life sentence, and I think other people probably would have voted for life, too,” one juror wrote.
Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for District Attorney R. Seth Williams of Philadelphia, said jurors should have been in no doubt about the options before them. “In the case of a capital murder charge like this one, the law is very clear: either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole,” she wrote in an e-mail.
On Friday, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of Philadelphia Common Pleas Court agreed to hear defense arguments that the killing of Mr. Norwood was motivated not by robbery — as stated by Marc Draper, a co-defendant at Mr. Williams’s trial — but by Mr. Norwood’s sexual abuse of Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams’s lawyers, who are seeking a stay of execution, say the evidence of sexual abuse, to be presented at another hearing on Thursday, was improperly suppressed by the prosecution at trial.
After Friday’s hearing, the district attorney rejected the arguments that the killing had been motivated by sexual abuse and said they had been dismissed by various courts, including the United States Supreme Court.
On Monday, Mr. Williams’s case will be heard by the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons. A unanimous vote of the five-member body is required for a recommendation to overturn the death penalty, and it is expected to announce its decision the same day. But the board’s decision is not binding on Mr. Corbett, who signed a death warrant for Mr. Williams on Aug. 9.