Justices weigh if DA-turned-judge had murder case conflict


PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Pennsylvania death row inmate has a simple challenge for the U.S. Supreme Court: The same person shouldn’t be both his prosecutor and his judge.

Yet Terrance “Terry” Williams says that’s exactly what happened when Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald Castille signed off on Williams’ death penalty prosecution in 1986 and, as chief justice of the state Supreme Court nearly 29 years later, participated in the unanimous vote that reinstated Williams’ death sentence.

Castille’s actions as a judge are before the high court on Monday, when eight justices will hear arguments. The ninth member of the court, Antonin Scalia, died earlier this month.

Williams’ lawyer says Castille had a clear conflict of interest and should have stepped aside from hearing case, especially because a lower court judge found that prosecutors working for Castille hid evidence in Williams’ murder trial.

“The issue being raised is prosecutorial misconduct, in his office, at the time he was the boss,” said Shawn Nolan, who handles death penalty appeals in the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. “It’s just not right.”

Castille, now retired, refused defense requests to withdraw from the case.

“In Pennsylvania, we leave it up to the judge’s personal conscience,” he said Friday. “I’ve always been confident that I can be fair and impartial.”

A judge’s decision about sitting out a case is a sensitive subject for the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices decide for themselves when they should not participate. Scalia once famously explained in a 21-page memo why he would not step aside from a case in which then-Vice President Richard Cheney was a party, after Scalia and Cheney went on a duck-hunting trip together in Louisiana.

In its last major case about judicial ethics, the high court divided 5-4 in 2009 in ruling that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.

Philadelphia prosecutors argue that Castille played only a fleeting part in Williams’ prosecution, limited to signing off on the decision to seek the death penalty. Williams, who had been a star high school quarterback, was accused of killing a church deacon. He already had been convicted of killing a high school booster, for which he was sentenced to up to 27 years in prison.

“His signature on that (capital case) memo, in January 1986, was his first, last, and only contact with this case,” prosecutors said in a U.S. Supreme Court filing.

But former federal appellate judges, former prosecutors and legal ethicists are among those calling for a new sentencing hearing for Williams.

“Judges who wear ‘two hats’ in the same case violate the requirement of judicial impartiality,” Lawrence J. Fox wrote in an amicus brief filed by the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School that calls the conduct “grave.”

“Chief Justice Castille’s conduct deeply undermined the integrity of the judicial proceedings and trampled any notion of due process for Mr. Williams.”

Williams’ case came before the state Supreme Court after a lower court threw out his death sentence in 2012, five days before Williams was scheduled to be executed. The judge found that Philadelphia prosecutors had withheld evidence that the deacon was molesting boys. Williams claimed the deacon had sexually abused him for years, although he did not make that allegation at his trial.

Prosecutors brand Williams a vicious double-murderer who at best perjured himself, if the abuse claims are true, when he told jurors he barely knew the church deacon and did not kill him. The married 56-year-old deacon, Amos Norwood, was beaten to death with a tire iron in a cemetery. The earlier victim, 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton, was beaten and stabbed in bed. Both bodies were set on fire.

Castille said the judge who criticized the prosecutors “was absolutely wrong” because they are alleged to have hidden information that Williams himself already knew. Castille called the lawyers and scholars supporting Williams’ case “abolitionists … trying to figure out ways to overcome the death penalty.”

Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999, and Gov. Tom Wolf last year announced a freeze on the death penalty shortly after taking office.

A second issue in Monday’s arguments is whether Castille’s involvement even matters when he did not cast a deciding vote, an issue that has divided lower federal courts. Williams’ lawyers argue that his presence alone could have influenced colleagues.

They also note that he boasted when he campaigned for the Supreme Court of the 45 death-penalty cases he approved when he was district attorney.

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Sherman reported from Washington.

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