WILLIAMS V. PA, ROBE-GONE-TO-HEAD SYNDROME?
Posted by: Edmund R. Folsom, Esq.
Date: June 21, 2016
On June 9, 2016, in Williams v. Pennsylvania, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it violated the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment Due Process Clause when the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, participated in the decision to allow Terrance Williams’ death penalty sentence to proceed, given that Castille was the District Attorney who approved Williams’ death penalty prosecution in the first place. Here’s the story… Back in 1984, Williams was 18 years old. He and another guy named Draper killed a 56-year-old man named Amos Norwood. At the time, Ronald Castille was the District Attorney whose office had jurisdiction over the case. To seek the death penalty, the Assistant D.A. who prosecuted the case needed to have the D.A. personally approve the death penalty prosecution. Castille signed-off on Williams’ death penalty prosecution. To secure the death penalty, the State needed to prove to the factfinder the existence of certain aggravating factors. In Williams’ case, the State relied on two: (1) Williams’ serious violent criminal record, and (2) the fact that Williams murdered Norwood in the course of a robbery. As to that second factor, the State used Williams’ cooperating codefendant, Draper, to testify against him. Draper testified that he and Williams were standing on a street corner and asked Norwood for a ride home as Norwood was driving by. Norwood gave them a ride, and Draper and Williams directed him to a cemetery where they beat him to death. At trial, Draper testified that the motive for the murder was to rob Norwood. Williams was convicted, the aggravating factors were found to exist, and the death penalty was imposed. Moving forward approximately 28 years, Williams’ death penalty sentence had still not been carried out. In 2012, Williams brought a post-conviction petition to set aside the death penalty, based on newly discovered evidence. In the petition, Williams claimed that prosecutorial misconduct had obstructed him from timely discovery of the new evidence. Shortly before the petition was brought, Draper had spoken to Williams’ attorneys for the first time. Draper told them that the real reason he and Williams killed Norwood had to do with a sexual relationship Williams had with Norwood. Draper said he told the State about the real motive for the murder before the trial, but the Assistant D.A. told him to lie and say the motive was robbery. Draper also said the Assistant D.A. promised to write a letter for him to the parole board in exchange for his trial testimony, although the D.A. had Draper testify at trial that the only deal he had with the State was to plead guilty and give truthful testimony. A judge held a hearing on Williams’ post-conviction claim and found that the Assistant D.A. in fact hid important evidence from Williams during his prosecution. The post-conviction court therefore stayed execution of the death penalty sentence and ordered that the case be re-sentenced.
In comes Castille for the second time… The State appealed the post-conviction court’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. At this point, the State Supreme Court’s Chief Justice was Ronald Castille, the same Ronald Castille who, as D.A., approved Williams’ death penalty prosecution in the first place. Williams moved to have Castille recuse himself from the decision, but Castille refused. Instead, Castille participated in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to set aside the post-conviction court’s order, thereby removing the stay and placing Williams back in line for execution. Two weeks after participating in that decision, Castille retired from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. At that point, Williams turned to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that Castille’s participation in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision violated his due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. Five members of an eight-member U.S. Supreme Court agreed, finding that Castille’s earlier act of approving Williams’ death penalty prosecution created an unconstitutional risk of bias. Whether you agree with the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court that Castille’s actions violated the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause or not (the dissenters viewed it as a matter to be sorted out by legal ethics codes and state statutes rather than the Due Process Clause), what was Castille’s refusal to recuse himself and to participate in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision (as its Chief Justice) other than the height of judicial arrogance? In this, the high season for mistrust of our governmental institutions and those who occupy them, we really don’t need this crap. Even allowing for the difficulty of locating humility in the quarters Ron Castille occupied, it’s hard to understand his disregard of the appearance of corrupt impropriety he projected here, entirely unnecessarily.