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The difference between life and death

A Pennsylvania man is scheduled to die on Oct. 3 for the brutal murder of one man, and he has also been sentenced on third-degree murder charges in the death of another. Based on these simple facts, Terry Williams seems to be a prime candidate for the death penalty, and currently, the odds are that he will be the first person to be executed in the state of Pennsylvania in 13 years.
What is so interesting about Terry Williams?
The facts above fail to mention the nature of Williams’ relationship to his victims. Williams, who comes from a long history of sexual abuse by male relatives and other authority figures, was just 18 years old when he killed two of his abusers. Those are the crimes for which he is sentenced to die.
In a state where stories of child sexual abuse from both coaches and clergy have made national headlines, it seems Pennsylvania should be more sensitive to this kind of crime and recognize the real mental pain and anguish Williams suffered at the hands of his abusers. However, state officials have shown Williams no sympathy; the governor has signed the death warrant, and Williams’ last hope is a determination from the state pardons board. However, in Pennsylvania the recommendation of the Board of Pardons is merely a suggestion and not binding on the governor, so the execution is likely to go forward.
What’s even more troubling about this case, besides Williams’ relationship to his victims and his state’s own troubled history, are the clear errors committed during his trial and sentencing. After the trial, jurors revealed that the judge had not fully informed them of sentencing options before their deliberations and ultimate recommendation of death. Laws in Pennsylvania do not require judges to give instructions containing details of the possible sentences.
In this case – a case of capital murder – regardless of circumstances there were only two possible sentences: death or life without parole. Since the sentence, five jurors have come forward and said that they would have not recommended the death penalty if they had known life without the possibility of parole was the only alternative.
The other issue with Williams’ trial was the evidence presented against him. Prosecutors mounted a case against him as motivated by robbery. Williams’ lawyers failed to mention his traumatic history of sexual abuse and his relationship to both of his murder victims, information that arguably could have proved to be mitigating factors in his charges and sentencing.
There’s been a loud public outcry, most notably from the widow of one of Williams’ victims, to spare him from the execution chamber. And while it’s politically unpopular to spare people from execution and appear to be soft on crime, it seems as though Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett should heed the outcry.
Williams’ case highlights the ramshackle procedure and lack of proper procedure present in many death penalty cases today. Death is the only punishment that can’t be reversed. Before someone is sent to his or her death, it behooves us to ensure that his or her rights were not compromised and that there isn’t new information about the case. In Williams’ case, there is no doubt that he was responsible for the murders. But there was arguable misconduct on the part of the judge and prosecutor, incompetent counsel for Williams and a covering up of Williams’ violent past. All of these factors make a difference; they change the whole landscape of the case. Arguably, Williams was a product of the violence in which he was raised; executing him will only continue that cycle of violence, and there’s no way we can in good conscience call that justice.

Brittany Sharkey is a third-year law student from Oceanside, Calif. She graduated from NYU in 2010 with a degree in politics. Follow her on Twitter @brittanysharkey.