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Supreme Court Sets Aside Complicated Pennsylvania Death Penalty Case

by Derek Gilna

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 9, 2016 overturned the action of relief by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, that vacated the decision of a post conviction court that found the death penalty conviction  of Terrence Williams was tainted by Brady violations by state prosecutors. Williams, who testified in his own defense at his 1984 trial, had always maintained his innocence, but conclusively established it under that state's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA).

That favorable PRCA ruling on Williams' behalf overturned by the Pennsylvania high court got the U.S. Supreme Court's attention. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision was set aside by the U.S. Supreme Court based upon the failure of the original prosecuting attorney--now chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court--to recuse himself from deliberations that led to that panel overturning that vacation of the original conviction.

As stated in the majority decision by Justice Kennedy, "In this case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated the decision of a post conviction court, which had granted relief to a prisoner convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. One of the justices on the State Su­preme Court had been the district attorney who gave his official approval to seek the death penalty in the prisoner’s case. The justice in question denied the prisoner’s motion for recusal and participated in the decision to deny relief. The question presented is whether the justice’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participa­tion violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment."

As noted by Justice Kennedy, "the PCRA court found that the trial prosecutor had suppressed material, excul­patory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U. S. 83 (1963), and engaged in “prosecutorial gamesman­ship.” App. 168a. The court stayed Williams’s execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing." The state supreme court, with the active involvement of the former prosecutor and now the chief justice, overturned that decision, and despite the Brady violations reinstated the death penalty.

"Due process guarantees “an absence of actual bias” on the part of a judge. In re Murchison, 349 U. S. 133, 136 (1955," the U.S. Supreme Court said, and "the constitu­tional principles explained in Murchison are fully applica­ble where a judge had a direct, personal role in the de­fendant’s prosecution.

"Due process," the court concluded, "entitles Terrance Williams to “a proceeding in which he may present his case with assurance” that no member of the court is “predisposed to find against him.” Marshallv. Jerrico, Inc., 446 U. S. 238, 242 (1980).The judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

See: Williams v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, U.S. Supreme Court, 15-5040, June 6, 2016.

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Related legal case

Williams v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania



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