Newly Constituted Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Grant of New Trial in Death Penalty Case

On July 19, the newly constituted Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously voted to uphold a trial court’s order granting a new trial to Philadelphia death row prisoner, Christopher Williams. The court determined that Williams’ trial and appellate counsel had been ineffective by failing to investigate and present expert forensic testimony on blood flow and gunshot wounds that would have demonstrated that the version of the murders presented by the prosecution’s lead witness was incompatible with the physical evidence. The court also ruled that the trial judge had improperly prevented defense lawyers from cross-examining the state’s expert witnesses on key matters. The case was the first time the new court was faced with a lower court judgment granting a capital defendant a new trial. A survey of Pennsylvania capital post-conviction appeals by the Death Penalty Information Center, updated through July 25, 2016, found that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has issued orders affirming or denying post-conviction requests for new trials by capital defendants 257 times since the Commonwealth enacted its current death penalty statute in 1978. This decision was only the third time in this period that the court had ordered or affirmed the grant of a new trial. By contrast, the court had previously voted more than 99% of the time to uphold capital convictions. It had overturned 12 of the last 13 lower court rulings it had considered since April 2006 that had granted death-row prisoners new trials. The sole exception had been the case of Ronald Champney, in which the court split 3-3, with one vacancy on the court caused by the conviction of a justice for public corruption. The tie vote upheld the decision of the trial court in that case.

Last November, Pennsylvania elected three new justices to the court, filling the positions formerly held by avid death penalty supporters who had been forced to resign as a result of “porngate” (a far-reaching email scandal involving the dissemination of pornographic, misogynistic, racist, and other offensive emails on public computers), ethics violations, or criminal convictions. A fourth leading death penalty proponent, former Chief Justice Ronald Castille—who was the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court’s judicial bias ruling in Terrance Williams v. Pennsylvania—left the court at the end of 2014 after reaching the state’s mandatory retirement age.

(See R. Dunham, “Pennsylvania Supreme Court Capital Post-Conviction Appellate Decisions Under Current Death Penalty Statute (1978-2015),” July 25, 2016.)