Defense, DNA and the Death Penalty

Terrance Williams has spent the last 26 years on Pennsylvania’s death row for the June 1984 beating death of Amos Norwood. Philadelphia Daily News reports, “Williams’ defense team argued in an emergency evidentiary hearing that Norwood molested Williams from the age of 13 until he murdered him at age 18.” During the 1986 trial, former Assistant District Attorney Andrea Foulkes kept that evidence from the trial defense attorney and jury and instead presented Norwood as a kindly, sympathetic figure who merely offered Williams a ride home.

On September 28, Pennsylvania Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina indefinitely stayed the execution, noting “two boxes of evidence just turned over this week from homicide detectives that, she said, corroborated the defense claims against Norwood and Herbert Hamilton. Williams, at 17, had a sex-for-money, abusive relationship with Hamilton and murdered him five months before killing Norwood.”

Williams’ first-degree murder conviction is unchanged by the ruling, meaning that the jury at his new penalty hearing will determine if he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. However, the defense team for Terrance Williams is hopeful that the state Board of Pardons will now vote to recommend that Gov. Corbett commute Williams’ sentence to life in prison without parole.

This case, much like the case of Troy Davis (who was wrongly executed on September 21, 2011), has brought the subject of death penalty once again to the public forum. Information compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center shows 1307 people have been executed since 1977, an additional 141 people have been exonerated and freed from death row since 1973, 18 by DNA evidence. Damon Thibodeaux is the most recent person to be exonerated because of DNA evidence; the 300th exoneration achieved through DNA testing in the United States, according to the Innocence Project. Barry Scheck, a founder of the Innocence Project, said, “The 300th exoneration is an extraordinary event, and it couldn’t be more fitting that it’s an innocent man on death row who gave a false confession. People have a very hard time with the concept that an innocent person could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit. But it happens a lot. It’s the ultimate risk that an innocent man could be executed.”

I previously supported the death penalty; however knowing that countless innocent men and women have been executed, I no longer support this method of punishment. If, and this is a big “if”, if there was a way to ensure that no innocent person was ever executed, I would support the death penalty if that is the punishment desired by the family of the victim.