The state of Pennsylvania is set to execute Terrance Williams on Oct. 3. In January of 1984, at age 17, Williams stabbed to death 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton of West Philadelphia. That June, a few months after Williams turned 18, he beat Amos Norwood, 56, to death with a tire iron and set fire to the body. Williams was convicted of third-degree murder for killing Hamilton and murder in the first degree for killing Norwood.
But circumstances around the killings might give pause to even a fervent capital-punishment supporter: Both Norwood and Hamilton, according to a clemency petition submitted by Williams’ lawyers, sexually abused the teenager, who suffered his first rape at age 6. The petition alleges that Norwood, a man in charge of altar boys at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown, had violently raped Williams the night before he took revenge, and that Hamilton attempted to force Williams to pose for nude photos before Williams stabbed him to death. The petition lays out a heartrending story: Williams was safe nowhere during his childhood. A middle-school teacher raped him. At home, his mother and stepfather meted out frequent, severe beatings. Sent to juvenile detention for burglary at age 16, he was raped by two older boys. No one helped him. He tried to live a normal life, dating and playing sports. Alone, he used a knife to cut his skin until it bled.
The jury that sentenced Williams never heard about any of this, thanks to flawed legal representation. Several jurors have since said that they would not have voted for death if they had known.
Pennsylvania has not executed a prisoner in 13 years, and it is astonishing that Gov. Tom Corbett might execute Williams, especially given the public fury over sexual abuses by Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky and by Philly Catholic priests. Norwood and Hamilton did not deserve to be killed for their alleged crimes, but neither does Williams. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, Philly District Attorney Seth Williams and Corbett should heed the growing call to investigate commuting Williams’ sentence to life without possibility of parole. Corbett has expressed a desire to downsize our bloated prison state, which eagerly punishes those shaped by social and personal evils while doing little to rehabilitate them. He should take this chance to make a down payment on his pledge for reform; even Norwood’s widow wants him to. And if Williams’ story is true and he’s no longer a threat, he should be released from prison: He’s suffered enough.
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