Death penalty remains hot-button issue in Pennsylvania

Story posted December 6, 2012 in News by Kristin Stoller

On June 11, 1984, a balmy summer night in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, two 18-year-olds stood gambling on a street corner, slowly losing all of their money. Angry and poor, Terry Williams and his friend Marc Draper turned to leave when they were offered a ride home by Amos Norwood, a married father and church volunteer the boys knew.

The teenagers accepted the ride, and then quickly turned on their benefactor. They lured Norwood to the neighborhood’s deserted Ivy Hill Cemetery. Cloaked in darkness, they stripped him bare and bound him with his own clothes. Then they beat him with a tire iron and socket wrench, shattering his skull and killing him.

After emptying Norwood’s pockets of his cash and credit cards, they fled in his blue Chrysler LeBaron. Williams returned later and set the dead man’s battered body aflame. The next morning, the teenagers went to Atlantic City to gamble with the stolen money.

The assailants were arrested, and at Williams’ trial in 1987, prosecutor Andrea Foulkes demanded the death penalty. Williams and Draper, she told the jury, beat their victim to death, “squashed him like a bug that you might be irritated with against a windshield.”

The jury convicted Williams and sentenced him to death. Draper received life without parole in exchange for testifying against his friend.

More than 28 years after the crime, Williams is still alive, having won his most recent reprieve on Oct. 3 just hours before he would have been put to death by lethal injection.

In the time Williams has been on death row, opposition to the death penalty has grown in many states. Seventeen states now prohibit executions, and the trend among states is to review their capital punishment statutes, if not abolish them.

Continuing the punishment

For decades, some religious leaders, psychologists and incarceration experts have argued that the death penalty is morally and practically unsound, and that it does not deter violent crimes.
And as DNA technology has advanced, scientific experts and amateur sleuths have on occasion proved that those condemned to die might not have committed the crimes for which they had been convicted.

Although Pennsylvania is among 33 states that sentence inmates to die, only three have been executed in the last 50 years. Those three were put to death between 1995 and 1999 during the administration of Gov. Tom Ridge. All three were men on death row who volunteered to be executed and did not pursue appeals. The most recent was the so-called “House of Horrors” killer, Gary Heidnik, who was put to death by lethal injection in 1999. Heidnik had been found guilty of the torture and murder of two women in 1988 in the basement of his Philadelphia house.

With 200 inmates on Pennsylvania’s death row, the legislature has created a bipartisan task force to study capital punishment.

The study is headed by the Justice Center for Research at Penn State University, the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness, and the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission. State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery/Bucks, who introduced the resolution calling for the study, said it should take at least a year.

The study will focus on hot-button issues such as the cost of execution versus the cost of life incarceration, the impact on murder victims’ families and the possibility of executing the innocent.

In April, Connecticut became the latest state to abolish the death penalty, though the repeal was not retroactive, leaving 11 people on death row.

Illinois abolished capital punishment in July 2011 after a 10-year moratorium issued by former Gov. George Ryan out of fear that an innocent person could be executed. However, as in Connecticut, the legislation abolishing the death penalty was not retroactive, leaving 15 men on Illinois’ death row.

California — the state with the most prisoners awaiting execution — was close to becoming the next state to end the death penalty. A referendum was placed on the November ballot to abolish capital punishment and have the sentences of California’s 724 inmates currently on death row changed to life in prison without parole, but it lost by six percentage points.

While the United States has a history of executions dating to Colonial times, it was not until the 20th century that the practice was challenged.

In 1972, the Supreme Court ordered a moratorium suspending the death penalty
because it was “cruel and unusual” — in violation of the Eighth Amendment, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The Death Penalty Information Center is a non-profit organization, with no moral or philosophical stance on the death penalty. But just four years later, in 1976, the court reinstated the death penalty after the adoption of new procedures from individual states.

Marc Bookman, executive director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an organization that offers resources for defense teams working on death-penalty cases, said though many other countries worldwide have the death penalty, the U.S. is the only civilized one to uphold it.

“We are alone with China, Sudan and Yemen,” he said. “These are countries we would never acknowledge ourselves with.”

Thou shall not kill

In August, Gov. Tom Corbett signed Williams’ death warrant — Corbett’s 16th since taking office in January 2011. Unlike the previous 15 prisoners, Williams appeared to have exhausted most of his appeals. Williams was scheduled to be put to death at 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview.

Williams’ defense team asked for a clemency hearing. On Sept. 17, the five-member Board of Pardons convened in Harrisburg to hear his case.

On the wall behind the board members, in gold, scripted writing, the words “Thou shall not kill” snaked across the wall — an omen of the very Commandment the board would be asked to violate.

Shawn Nolan, Williams’ attorney, began by pointing out that the board had not convened for this purpose in more than 50 years.

“The decision to take the life of a fellow citizen is of monumental importance,” Nolan said. “Terry is not the terrible person the prosecution is making him out to be.”

Nolan urged the board to look beyond the hard facts of the murder and see it in the context of Williams’ life. Williams, Nolan argued, was physically and sexually abused throughout his childhood, and his victim, Amos Norwood, was one of the abusers.

“It’s the crimes themselves ... These are crimes of rage, of pain and of humiliation,” he said.

He said that Williams was first raped by an older boy in his neighborhood when he was 6 years old and that his mother had physically abused him since birth.

“Sixth graders watched Terry’s mother beat him, with a trail of blood running down the stairs behind him and a trail of blood running down his face,” Nolan said.

As Williams grew older, his attorneys argued, he continued to be sexually abused by his schoolteacher and others.

David Lisak, a retired University of Massachusetts clinical psychologist and researcher, testified at the hearing that Williams’ decision to commit the murder came after a rape by Norwood —someone Williams trusted.

Lisak compared Williams’ case to those of the boys whom former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexually abusing.

The Sandusky case was prosecuted by the office of the Attorney General Linda Kelly, a member of the Board of Pardons. Addressing Kelly, Lisak said: “Three months ago, the state of Pennsylvania argued on behalf of men who were abused by Sandusky. You put up the words humiliation, shame, fear and silence. And you were right.”

Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Thomas Dolgenos argued that there was no admissible evidence that Norwood sexually abused Williams. He also questioned why Williams didn’t bring up the abuse at his trial 25 years earlier. He said Williams was “blaming the victim, a dead victim, a victim he killed, who cannot defend himself.”

Three board members voted for clemency — Kelly; Louise B. Williams, the board’s victim representative; and psychologist Russell A. Walsh. But the Pennsylvania Constitution requires a unanimous decision by the board to recommend clemency, a decision ultimately made by the governor. Harris Gubernick, a corrections expert, and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, chairman of the board, opposed it.

An appeals process provides an import- ant safeguard to correct serious problems that could have occurred at trial, said Sarah Turberville, project director at the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Morato- rium Implementation Project. Turberville said the views expressed were her own, and she was not speaking on behalf of the ABA.

She said many defendants are assigned attorneys to assist them during post-convic- tion proceedings, and those attorneys may be untrained or ill-equipped.

“Thus, while the appeals process is meant to afford safeguards to prevent and remedy serious error that occurred at trial,” Turberville said, “courts are less and less able to exercise independent judgment in deciding capital cases on appeal.”

A quest for retribution

In Williams’ case, Norwood’s family members were split on whether the killer should be executed.

In January, Norwood’s widow, Mamie Norwood, submitted a statement to the court in support of keeping Williams alive.

Though Mamie Norwood said she was angry and resentful of Williams at first, she said she accepted that her husband wasn’t coming back. The only way to heal, she said, was forgiveness.

“His execution would go against my Christian faith and my belief system,” she said in the statement. “He is worthy of forgiveness and I am at peace with my decision to forgive him and have been for many years. I wish to see his life spared.”

Norwood’s daughter, Barbara Norwood Harris, favored Williams’ execution. She said her father was not the bad man Williams made him out to be.

In a statement read to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, Harris said she was frantic and distressed after her father’s murder, because his body had been burned beyond recognition.

“The defendant has never expressed to me remorse or guilt for what took place on that fatal night in June 1984,” Harris said in the statement. “What I do recall is that my life and the lives of others around me drastically changed for the worse.”

Though Harris said she forgave Williams, her plea to uphold Williams’ execution was for the safety of the community. “I cannot however for the safety of myself, my family and community allow a cold-blooded, terroristic killer to threaten another human being,” Harris wrote.

In an emotional statement to the Board of Pardons, the mother of Williams’ daughter, Marlene Cruse, begged for clemency not just for her sake, but also for their daughter, now in her late 20s.
Williams never forgot a birthday, even though he has been in prison for more than 20 years, she said. Williams would cut out newspaper clippings related to their daughter’s career—fashion—and would mail them to her along with letters of encouragement, Cruse said.

And at the time of the clemency hearing, she said she still hadn’t told her daughter about her father’s looming execution.

“From the heart of a mother,” Cruse said, her voice breaking, “please save his life so she doesn’t have to go through the rest of her life knowing her father was executed.”

The next steps

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of Philadelphia stayed Williams’ execution five days before he was scheduled to die. Sarmina based her ruling on suppressed evidence, as prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that Norwood had been a sexual predator.

Prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which decided at 3:45 p.m. on Oct. 3 to stop the execution. That was just three hours and fifteen minutes before the execution would have been carried out.

Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said she was already on the way to Rockview for the execution when she got a call with the news about the Supreme Court’s decision.

Lucas said she had to pull off the road because her emotions were so strong.

“I was just shaking and crying,” she said. “I had to sit there for a half an hour, just shaking and crying.”

Now, Williams’ case is in limbo. Sarmina’s stay will stop the execution process until the courts have examined the facts of Williams’ case.

In the meantime, other inmates are living under death warrants. One is Hubert Michael, whose death warrant Gov. Corbett signed Sept. 11, condemning him to death Nov. 8. Michael was convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 16-year-old York County girl in 1993. Michael admitted offering the girl a ride and then shooting her three times and dumping her body in state game lands.

Like Williams, Michael’s execution was blocked just hours before he was to be put to death. A federal court sent Michael’s case back to a federal district court judge for additional proceedings.
Days earlier, two federal judges, U.S. District Judges John Jones and Yvette Kane, rejected Michael’s request for a stay in two separate cases.

In one case, Michael’s attorneys argued that he suffered from mental-health problems, which were only made worse in his time inside Graterford state prison near Philadelphia. In the other—a class action case—attorneys said the state’s drug execution procedure was unconstitutional because some of the drugs used are not at the required potency, causing unnecessary suffering.

The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons also voted unanimously to deny clemency for Michael.

Balancing the scales of justice

Not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country, the future of the death penalty remains uncertain.

Victim’s mother seeks out murderer,
offers forgiveness,
finds some closure

Vicki Schieber has vowed not to dwell on the past, but a telephone call from 14 years ago echoes in her mind.

“You have got to come to Philadelphia and identify a dead body,” a Philadelphia police officer told her, as she was living in Maryland at the time.

The body was that of Vicki’s daughter, Shannon, a beautiful, intelligent 23-year-old woman with a passion for righting the wrongs in society.

After graduating from Duke University in three years, Shannon had enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1997 on a full scholarship. Despite her rigorous academic schedule, Shannon found time to teach a Junior Achievement class in an impoverished area of the city, Vicki said.

As she commuted to teach her class, Shannon was unaware that someone was watching her.

On May 7, 1998—hours before Shannon’s students had planned to throw her an end-of-the-year surprise party—Shannon was taking a bath when Troy Graves, who would later be called the serial “Center City Rapist,” broke into her small, one-person apartment, raped and strangled her.

Police were called to investigate screams heard in the apartment complex, but Shannon’s body wasn’t discovered until the next day, when Shannon’s brother came to meet her for lunch.

Graves went on to assault seven more women before he was caught in 2002, police said, and Philadelphia prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Her daughter’s murder sparked a fight in Vicki – not to seek retribution, but to save her daughter’s murderer.

Vicki said she and her husband reached out to other murder victims’ families. Many of the families had a horrific time emotionally when the death penalty was sought in their cases, Vicki said, because the process could take 20 years before the criminals were executed — if they were executed.

Vicki said she watched divorce and health problems run rampant among victims’ families, as they focused their lives on waiting for the executions.

“We said, look at what has happened to these people,” Vicki said. “That’s when Shannon started talking to me. It was like she said, ‘OK, so I was a victim of this system, and now what are you going to do, Mom? I would be as pissed as you were, but you can do something about it.’”

And what she did was startling.

Her next step was to seek out the mother of her daughter’s murderer. After hours of tear-filled conversations, Vicki said she came to understand Graves’ mangled past and forgave him.

Initially, the district attorney in Shannon’s case was “hell-bent” on seeking the death penalty, Vicki said. But after months of pleading, she got her wish: Graves was sentenced to life in prison.

“A lot of people think I’m crazy,” Vicki said, solemnly. “But I have incredible faith and belief that we all make mistakes.”

Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said executing criminals only creates another set of victims – the families of the criminals who committed the crimes.

Closure, she said, is a myth.

Among victims’ families, Vicki said closure is grimly called the “C-word,” and those who are promised it usually wait five to 20 years to get it.

“If you hold onto anger and revenge, it destroys you, and you are not getting what you promised,” she said. “I want to lean over to people and hug them and say, ‘I wish I could give you the gift that I have.’ ”

Yet Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, said the death penalty is partly intended to promote healing.

Under Pennsylvania law, when some- one intentionally takes the life of another person, it is just to take that person’s life, he said.

“Does it bring the victim back? No,” Long said. “But does it bring a measure of closure back for the victim’s family and loved ones? Yes.”

-- Kristin Stoller

For Fran Chardo, first assistant district attorney of Dauphin County, Pa., abolishing the death penalty would be wrongheaded. Capital punishment, he said, is an appropriate penalty in many circumstances.

“I don’t rejoice in death of any person,” Chardo said. “But it’s the law.”

As for Sen. Greenleaf’s study, it’s too early to tell whether the results will make a change.

John Henry Kramer, a Penn State professor of sociology and crime, law and justice, a principal investigator of the fairness in the administration of the death penalty in the study, said the group was in the early stages of collecting data. Though no conclusions have been reached, Kramer said the fact that such a resolution to study capital punishment was passed in the legislature shows that there is unease with it.

“It’s going to be an ugly debate,” Kramer said. “It’s a tough area for research because emotions are so strong in favor or not in favor. Whatever we find is going to be hated and liked by different groups.”

In Williams’ case, Kramer said he was unsure if his near-execution would change citizens’ minds on the death penalty. Clearly, he said, the government is hesitant to move forward with the death penalty if it has not executed someone in more than a decade.

“I don’t know why they selected Terrance Williams as the case to move forward with,” he said, “but it struck me as an odd choice.”

Though Chardo has prosecuted 10 capital cases, he said the criminals sentenced to death are the “worst of the worst” and should be put to death in order to keep the public safe.

“When I’m battling an evil person, I don’t have a problem with it, and the people we have sought the death penalty against are evil people,” Chardo said.

Though some argue that it’s expensive to keep prisoners on death row, Chardo said that argument is “baloney” because it costs no more money than to keep them in solitary confinement.

Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that no sophisticated cost study has been done in Pennsylvania, so it is impossible to know how much the death penalty is costing the state. Dieter made the statement in June 2010 testimony before the Pennsylvania Senate Government Management and Cost Study Commission.

However, Dieter said his center found that California was spending $90,000 a year more to hold a prisoner on death row than to confine the same inmate in a maximum-security prison.

From the prosecution’s standpoint, Chardo said it costs no more money in a murder trial to seek the death penalty.

But according to a 2009 report by the Death Penalty Information Center, a state may pay $1 million more for a death-penalty trial than for a non-death-penalty trial.

In Williams’ case, prosecutor Thomas Dolgenos said the nature of the crimes dictated that only the death penalty – not life in prison without parole – would suffice.

“There are lots of reasons why people are pro-death penalty,” Dolgenos said. “In cases like this, leaving someone in prison does not even the scales of justice.”