U.S. Supreme Court Overturns Pennsylvania Death Penalty Ruling Infected by Judicial Bias

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Williams v. Pennsylvania that Terry Williams' (pictured) due process rights were violated when Pennsylvania's Chief Justice refused to recuse himself from the case. Ronald Castille served as Philadelphia District Attorney before being elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue the death penalty against the 18-year-old Williams, and then, while running for state Supreme Court, touted his record of having "sent 45 people," including Williams, to death row. Nearly 30 years after Williams was sentenced to death, and within a week of his scheduled execution, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas heard evidence that prosecutors had presented false testimony from a witness and withheld evidence that it had given favorable treatment to that witness; suppressed evidence that the victim had sexually abused Williams and other boys; and misrepresented to the jury that the victim had been simply a "kind man" who had offered Williams a ride home. After the court overturned Williams' death sentence, Philadelphia prosecutors appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille was serving as Chief Justice. Williams' attorneys filed a motion seeking Castille's recusal, but he denied the motion, refused to refer the question to the full court, and voted with the majority of the court to reverse the lower court ruling and reinstate Williams' death sentence. Castille also authored a concurring opinion saying the lower court had stayed Williams' death sentence "for no valid reason," attacking the judge for having “lost sight of [her] role as a neutral judicial officer,” and denouncing Williams' counsel for having an “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” and turning postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reversed, saying "[a] constitutionally intolerable probability of bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case." Here, the Court ruled, "Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias." It further determined that Castille's participation in the case "affected the ... whole adjudicatory framework" of the appeal, and ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal. “Today, Terry Williams comes one step closer to the new, fair sentencing hearing he deserves,” said Shawn Nolan, an attorney for Williams, “We’re optimistic that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will give this case careful consideration and recognize the injustice of Terry’s death sentence.”

(Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15-5040, June 9, 2016; Press Release, "U.S. Supreme Court Finds Former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Should Have Recused Himself in Death Penalty Case," June 9, 2016.) See U.S. Supreme Court and Prosecutorial Misconduct.