Justices hear judicial-bias claim in death-row case

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court on Monday appeared likely to rule that a Philadelphia district attorney-turned-state high court judge should not have taken part in the case of a prison inmate whose death-penalty prosecution he had personally approved nearly 30 years earlier.

The justices indicated that inmate Terrance "Terry" Williams should get a new hearing in Pennsylvania's Supreme Court because then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille voted to reinstate Williams' death sentence in 2014. A lower court judge had thrown out the sentence because prosecutors working for Castille had hidden evidence that might have helped the defense in Williams' 1986 murder trial.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was among several justices who focused on Castille's actions in 1986, when he was the Philadelphia district attorney. "The judge here actually signed his name to the review of the facts and the decision to seek the death penalty," Sotomayor said.

When Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg told the justices that the passage of time had lessened concerns about bias, Justice Anthony Kennedy was almost incredulous. "So the fact that he spent 30 years in solitary confinement actually helps the state?" Kennedy said.

The conditions of Williams' confinement could be an issue in the outcome of his case. Pennsylvania has not executed anyone since 1999, and Gov. Tom Wolf has declared a moratorium on executions. But even if the chance of Williams' being put to death is small, he continues to be held in isolation along with other death row inmates in Pennsylvania.

The court also confronted whether Castille's participation in the case made a difference on a court that ruled unanimously against Williams.

Stuart Lev, the assistant federal defender in Philadelphia who is representing Williams, said the vote should be tossed out because no one knows, other than the Pennsylvania justices, what took place in their closed-door deliberations.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who at times seemed skeptical of Williams' case, seemed to agree with Lev on that point. "I mean, if the individual who should have been recused occupied a dominant role in the discussion and was successful in persuading colleagues and all that-and of course, that's the sort of evidence you certainly can't have access to," Roberts said in an exchange with Eisenberg.

The Philadelphia prosecutor described Castille's involvement in the case as minimal, limited to signing off on the death-penalty prosecution.

Castille, now retired, refused defense requests to recuse himself. "In Pennsylvania, we leave it up to the judge's personal conscience. I've always been confident that I can be fair and impartial," he said in an interview with The Associated Press last week.

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.

Williams claims both men sexually abused him. Prosecutors had information that the deacon was molesting boys and failed to turn it over to defense lawyers.


Associated Press writer Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

Published: Wed, Mar 02, 2016