When Common Pleas Court
Judge M. Teresa
Sarmina stayed the
execution of Terry Williams, she
dealt a blow to the death penalty in Pennsylvania.
Now the public has caught a glimpse of prosecutorial misconduct and
suppression in the application of the death penalty, and it isn’t
misconduct was the second most common factor associated with murder
exonerations in America, occurring in 56 percent of cases.
In her order,
- a former prosecutor - issued a scathing indictment of the prosecutor
case for hiding evidence that Amos Norwood was a sexual predator who
molested Williams and other children. Sarmina said “evidence has plainly been
accused former assistant D.A. Andrea Foulkes
engaging in “gamesmanship” and “playing fast and loose.” The judge also
said Foulkes “had no problem disregarding
obligations” in an attempt to win.
Given these developments,
baffling that any governor or district attorney would want to hitch
to the execution of Terry Williams. The tainting of capital cases - the
handiwork of renegade prosecutors, police officers and other actors in
criminal justice system - is part of the unseemly underbelly of the
It is a broken, arbitrary
discriminates against the poor and people of color. Over 130 capital
convictions have been overturned in the Keystone state, the
highest in the nation. And Pennsylvania’s
death row population is nearly 70% of
color, the highest percentage in the U.S.,
with the city of Philadelphia
providing the bulk of the prisoners.
Executions are barbaric
and a violation
of international human rights law. And as Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern
above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of
Moreover, innocent people are most certainly put to death.
Since 1973, 141 innocent men and
women across the U.S.
have been released from death
row. They spent an average of 10 years in conditions that can only be
as torture. Of these, 6 were wrongfully imprisoned on Pennsylvania’s
death row. And official
misconduct played a role in nearly all of their unjust convictions.
Nicholas Yarris, who was sentenced to
death for the
1981 rape, abduction of murder of Linda May Craig in Delaware County,
spent 22 years on death row before he was exonerated. His wrongful
was secured through perjured testimony of a jailhouse informant and the
of the prosecution to hand over 20 pages of documents.
Wrongfully convicted of
Philly mobster and a female companion, Neil Ferber spent 14 months on death
row. He was also the victim of
false testimony from a jailhouse informant, and evidence of his
was not handed over to his defense.
Harold Wilson, who was sentenced to
death for the murder and robbery of three
people in South Philadelphia, was
through DNA evidence after spending 17 years in prison. In 2003, a
that the prosecutor in the original trial had eliminated potential
In 2000, William
Nieves was acquitted by a Philadelphia
jury for a 1992 murder someone else committed, yet for which he was
in 1994. His original defense lawyer was paid $2,500 and had no
handling capital cases. When he was retried, Nieves’ new lawyer had
evidence that had been withheld from the defense. Nieves died of liver
in 2005 due to improper medical treatment while in prison.
Thomas Kimbell was convicted of four
murders in 1998,
despite no evidence or eyewitnesses linking him to the crimes. The
Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 2000 because the trial judge
unfairly excluded evidence pointing to his innocence. Kimbell
was acquitted of all charges after a retrial in 2002.
Sentenced to die for a
murder, Jay C. Smith was released in 1992. The
court found that the D.A. had committed “egregious” misconduct by
The tainting of capital cases is part of the
unseemly underbelly of the death penalty.
According to the National Registry of
Exonerations - a database of 983 of the
2,000 criminal exonerations over
the past 23 years, including 32 exonerations in Pennsylvania
- official misconduct was the second most common factor associated with
exonerations in America,
occurring in 56 percent of cases. Perjury and false accusations were
percent of the time, followed by mistaken witness identification (27
false confessions (25 percent) and false and misleading forensic
With 200 people condemned
to death, Pennsylvania
has the fourth largest death row in America. With no voluntary
executions in the state in half a century, the tragic story of Terry
has reopened the debate on capital punishment. We do not know how many
row inmates would be free or serving a lesser sentence but for an
challenged prosecutor who believed in winning over seeking justice.
we know, now is as good a time as any to shut down Pennsylvania’s broken death machine.
Columnist, David A. Love, JD, is the Executive
Director of Witness
to Innocence, a
national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row
and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to
the death penalty. He is, is a graduate
of Harvard College and the University of Pennsylvania
Law School. and a
contributor to The Huffington Post, the Grio, The Progressive
Project, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, In These Times and Philadelphia Independent Media
also blogs at davidalove.com, NewsOne, Daily Kos, and Open Salon. Click here to contact Mr. Love.