By Austin Nolen
In a 5-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself from an appeal involving Terrance Williams, who was prosecuted for murder by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office when Castille was DA.
Williams was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood. During the trial, Williams denied committing the crime, but in successive appeals, claimed to have been sexually abused by Norwood. In 2012, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas found that prosecutors had withheld certain evidence about that abuse and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed, finding that Williams had waited too long after his conviction to present those claims. State law contains an exception to the time limit for evidence suppressed by the government, but the state high court determined that since Williams was himself a victim of Norwood’s sexual abuse, he couldn’t claim to be surprised that other evidence of Norwood’s crimes existed.
Williams, whose death sentence has been temporarily stayed by Governor Tom Wolf, then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that since Castille led the office which prosecuted him, he could not participate in hearing the appeal.
The District Attorney’s Office responded by claiming that Castille’s only role was to sign an authorization to seek the death penalty, limiting his actual involvement in the case.
In his majority opinion released today, Justice Anthony Kennedy found that Castille’s authorization of the death penalty was “significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision” in Williams’ case, requiring recual. Kennedy, together with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan, ruled this failure to recuse himself amounted to a violation of Williams’ constitutional right to due process.
In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Alito argued that, because Williams had only raised the issue of improperly withheld evidence, Castille did not violate Williams’ rights by hearing the case, since Castille’s involvement was limited to a separate issue.
Though Roberts and Alito agreed that Castille may have acted improperly, their dissent states that his actions did not rise to the level of a constitutional issue and were more appropriate for state judicial authorities to sort out.
Williams’ case now returns for another hearing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on whether or not he waited for too long to file his latest claims about withheld evidence.
Justice Clarence Thomas also filed a dissenting opinion.
U.S. Supreme Court Opinion in Williams v. Pennsylvania:
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