Pennsylvania Chief Justice Refuses To Recuse From Death Penalty Case He Helped Prosecute

The Philadelphia chief justice who supervised the prosecution of a death penalty case now headed to the state’s high court is refusing to recuse himself.

The case concerns Terrance “Terry” Williams, who won a reprieve from his scheduled execution after his attorneys presented new evidence that they said had been suppressed at the trial. According to testimony before Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, who issued the stay, police and the prosecution coached a key witness at Williams’ trial to claim that robbery was the motive for the crime, rather than sex abuse, even though the witness informed the authorities that there was a “relationship” between Williams and the two men he killed. Williams’ statement that he was sexually assaulted by the men he killed was supported by some 26 child abuse and sexual assault experts.

Now the case is now being appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Ronald Castille sits. Castille oversaw Williams’ case when he served as Philadelphia district attorney and “wrote a note approving that his staff seek the death penalty against Terry,” according to one of Williams’ lawyers.

Castille reportedly has a history of refusing recusals in cases he oversaw as district attorney, even though his oversight of the prosecution makes it impossible for him to appear a neutral arbiter.

As The New York Times’ Lincoln Caplan writes:

With the decision not to recuse himself in this case, Mr. Castille has underscored his obtuseness about what basic fairness requires. He has diminished his position, the court he sits on and the rule of law in Pennsylvania. Even if the court upholds the trial court’s stay and order, as the merits dictate, its ruling will be badly tainted. And if it does not, the ruling will simply not be trustworthy.

Williams would become the first person executed in Pennsylvania in 13 years, and the first in 50 years who had not already abandoned his appeals. His clemency petition was supported by 22 former prosecutors and judges, 34 law professors, 40 mental health professionals and more than 36 religious leaders. It was accompanied by a letter from 26 child advocates and sexual abuse experts who said the “evidence of abuse in this case is clear.” Even the widow of one of the victims submitted a letter asking that his life be spared.


The warrant for Williams’ execution expires Wednesday at midnight, after which Gov. Tom Corbett would have to sign a new death warrant.


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected an emergency motion this afternoon to reinstate Williams’ execution before the warrant expired at midnight, sparing Williams from last-minute execution today. But the case is not over — the court still plans to hear arguments on the lower court ruling, and could issue a new warrant.