On June 11, 1984, 18-year-old Terrance Williams and his friend Marc Draper robbed and bludgeoned to death 56-year-old Amos Norwood in a Philadelphia cemetery. Norwood, a chemist who worked with youth at a local church, had allegedly been molesting Williams since he was 13 years old. Williams had been sexually abused by multiple men throughout his childhood, starting at the age of 6, and he killed another one of his alleged abusers, Herbert Hamilton, just six months before Norwood. When Williams was tried for Norwood’s murder, however, the jury never heard this history of sexual abuse. In fact, the prosecutor deliberately hid information about the abuse and instead told the jury Williams had killed Norwood “for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home.” The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
Williams is an African-American man, and though blacks only made up 40 percent of the jury pool, 14 of the 16 jurors the state prosecutor disqualified were black. In addition to omitting Williams’s history of abuse and the impact it might have on his decision-making, there is evidence that the prosecutor knew about Amos Norwood’s alleged history of molesting other youth and concealed it. Williams also received an ineffective defense—he first met his attorney the day before trial. These and other circumstances have led to an ongoing string of appeals, but Williams remains on death row. So it was a relief to his supporters when, in February of last year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a moratorium on the death penalty, citing racial bias. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams promptly sued him.
Seth Williams has been Philadelphia’s district attorney since 2010—the first African American to occupy the office in Philadelphia’s history. He represents a city that has historically writhed with racial tension, in a county where nearly half of residents are African-American. African Americans in Philadelphia County are substantially more likely to be arrested and are five times as likely to serve time in prison after arrest than whites. Williams ran on a reform platform—“smart on crime, not just tough,” and many hoped the city’s first African-American DA would provide a new sense of fairness and justice to its communities of color.
But that has not happened. Although Williams has made some notable reforms—he created alternative sentencing options for nonviolent crimes, including a pre-trial felony diversion program, and committed to reducing Philadelphia’s prison population by one-third in three years—his record thus far shows a consistent pursuit of policies that punish the weak and vulnerable. It also provides a troubling map for how he may handle perhaps his greatest test yet: resentencing Philadelphia’s large population of people serving mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for crimes they committed when they were juveniles, something he is required to do in response to the Supreme Court’s recent Montgomery v. Louisiana decision.