Eighteen-year-old Terrance Williams “did not fit the mold of a typical street criminal,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in September of 1984. “He was a bright, talented college student, former star quarterback of the Germantown High School football team. His friends, teachers, coaches and neighbors could not believe that he would be involved in murder, or any sordid activity.”
Yet Williams, who is African-American, had committed two grisly killings. One victim, the Inquirer reported, was 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, who had been found naked, with a knife through his throat, on his kitchen floor. The other, Amos Norwood, who led the altar boys and directed the Youth Theater Fellowship at Philadelphia’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, had been beaten with a tire iron, set on fire, and left in a cemetery.
“The problem I find with you, Mr. Williams, is you are a Jekyll and Hyde, apparently,” one judge told him. Tried as an adult for the Hamilton murder despite being 17 at the time, Williams was already in prison when he was sentenced to die for killing Norwood. “We were glad we did it,” one juror told the press.
Today, Williams, 46, is facing death by lethal injection. This August, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed a warrant scheduling his execution for October 3. But in the meantime, the same jurors who sealed his fate have had a dramatic change of heart. At least five say that if they could go back, they would never have sent Williams to death row. That’s because they were never told a salient and deeply disturbing detail about his relationship with his victim. Williams, it turns out, had been violently and systematically raped by Norwood, beginning when he was 13 years old.
In fact, behind the image of Williams as a model student athlete was a childhood marred by horrific physical and sexual abuse that began from the time Williams was just 6 years old. Relentlessly beaten by his mother (herself a victim of abuse) and his alcoholic stepfather and gang-raped at a juvenile detention center when he was 16, by the time Williams killed Norwood he was regularly cutting himself, abusing drugs and alcohol, and had endured more than a decade of abuse.
Among the others who sexually assaulted him: his other victim, Herbert Hamilton.
Hamilton’s preying on teen boys seemed to be an open secret. The same Inquirer story opened with a description of the man as a devoted supporter of the Ben Franklin High School basketball team, a man who bought warm-up suits for the players and “bought a van to shuttle the team to and from games.” But he “also often invited youths he met through sports to his West Philadelphia apartment to join him, according to police, in homosexual activity.”
Williams was among them. While the Ben Franklin basketball coach claimed not to know about the abuse—a word conspicuously absent from press reports at the time, along with “rape”—he told the Inquirer that Williams was one of the boys who was “was over to his house a lot.”
Williams was shown some leniency for the Hamilton killing, in part because it reportedly occurred during a violent struggle after Hamilton demanded that Williams pose naked for him. He was convicted of third-degree murder and given a maximum sentence of twenty-seven years. But such evidence played no role in the trial for Norwood’s murder. His co-defendant, Marc Draper, the son of a police officer, testified against him to save his own life, claiming that Williams had been primarily motivated by a desire to rob Norwood. He got a life sentence, while Williams was given the death penalty.
At a post-conviction relief hearing in the late 1990s, attorneys argued that Williams had inadequate representation—his original lawyer, who would later be disbarred, did not meet him until one week before trial—and presented proof that, in addition to being raped at age 6 by a neighbor and “repeatedly molested by a [male] teacher” in his early teens, when he was 13, “[he] met and began a relationship with Norwood,” who was “cruel and physically abusive at times.” Family, friends and teachers attested to the abuse, and a trio of mental health experts would describe him as “suffering from extreme mental or emotional disturbance when he killed Norwood.” (Court filings describe how Norwood raped Williams in a parking lot the night before he was killed.)
But appeals at the state level were denied. And while a federal District court would acknowledge that Williams’s trial lawyer “failed to recognize that it was his duty—not his imprisoned client’s—to identify and pursue potentially mitigating evidence,” it, too, denied relief on procedural grounds.
It was not until this past winter that another witness would come forward, a former pastor named Charles Pointdexter, who knew Norwood for thirty years. He admitted having known that he had sexually abused teen boys.
“Amos seemed to have lots of close relationships with young men…” he stated in an affidavit signed February 9, 2012, saying that he began to suspect that they were “inappropriate” in nature. A few years before Amos’s death, one of the parishioners, the mother of a 15-year-old boy, told him that he had “touched her son’s genitals” during a car ride and that “Amos had inappropriately touched a number of boys at the church.” Pointdexter kept the knowledge to himself.
According to Williams’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, this revelation was key. Speaking to The Nation after visiting his client on death row last week, he described how it would ultimately lead to the jurors’ coming out against the execution. “Once we talked to Rev. Pointdexter and he told us this stuff, we did further investigation and that led us to another guy…who indicated that Mr. Norwood approached him and propositioned him,” Nolan said. “And none of that evidence had ever come out before this year.”
Then, “we went and talked to the jurors,” he said. “And the jurors said if they had known this, they wouldn’t have voted for death.”
Indeed, affidavits signed in July include repeated statements to this effect. “If I had known about the sexual abuse and how it related to the crime,” one former juror wrote, “it would have changed my mindset.” Another wrote, “Now that I know that he was a victim of sexual abuse by Mr. Norwood, I would have voted for life without parole instead of the death penalty.” In addition, three of these jurors also explained that they had sentenced Williams to die partly based on the fear that he might be eventually released. (Pennsylvania is the only state that does not compel sentencing judges to make clear that a life sentence means life without parole.) “The reason that I opted for the death sentence was because I was under the impression that if we sentenced Terrance Williams to life in prison then he could get out on parole,” one former juror said. “I didn’t want him to get out of prison.”
“That’s powerful to me,” says Nolan. And as he seeks clemency for his client, “hopefully that’s powerful to the governor.”
Also powerful is a signed declaration from Norwood’s widow, Mamie, who says she has forgiven Williams for killing her husband. “I do not wish to see Terry Williams executed,” she said, citing her Christian faith. “He is worthy of forgiveness and I am at peace with my decision.… I wish to see his life spared.”
On the victims’ side, says Nolan, “There is nobody in this case that is asking for the death penalty.”
Indeed, there is overwhelming support for clemency. Among those calling on the state to spare Williams’s life are twenty-two former prosecutors, eight retired judges and forty-seven mental health professionals—a highly unusual display of support. Part of this is likely due to an increased public awareness of sexual abuse. Particularly in the wake of the Penn State abuse scandal, says Nolan, “when you put that in the context of the bigger discussion that everyone’s been having over the last year,” the case for clemency is compelling. “We have learned that so many young people have been the victims of sexual abuse [in Pennsylvania],” he says. While not all victims murder their abusers, Williams’s petition argues that his case is largely about devastating effects of that victimization.
At a hearing on Monday, September 17, Williams’s attorneys will have thirty minutes to convince the state pardons board to spare his life. It won’t be easy: the five-member body is notoriously stingy when it comes to commutations. Its members include the lieutenant governor and state attorney general, who, Nolan “interestingly is our opposing counsel in some of this litigation.”
Recommendations for clemency must be unanimous, and the governor must then agree. “It’s a tough process,” says Nolan. But he believes if there was ever a case for clemency, this is it.
This is not the first time Williams has faced the death chamber. Governor Ed Rendell signed an execution warrant for him in 2005—the thirty-ninth of his term. (He would go on to sign many more, boasting a total of 119 by the end of his tenure.) In fact, despite piles of execution warrants signed over the years—Corbett has signed at least nineteen since taking office—Pennsylvania has not carried out the death penalty since a prisoner volunteered in 1999. The last time Pennsylvania put a man to death against his will was in 1962.
To his supporters, resuming executions by killing of Terrance Williams would put a particularly ugly face on the state’s death penalty. —To me, this is a much more compelling case than a lot of cases that you see,” says Nolan. “It has that direct correlation to the crime. The man who was killed was victimizing this young boy, for years. And the jury never knew that. And that’s outrageous.”
Go here to read the clemency petition, signed affadavits, and more in support of Terrance Williams.