Child advocates, former prosecutors, mental health professionals, former jury members, and the victim’s widow are asking for clemency for a survivor of child sexual abuse who killed his abuser and is scheduled to be executed October 3. Terrance “Terry” Williams was raised by a physically violent mother and was first raped at the age of 6, before being raped repeatedly by his school teacher. As a teenager, he was sexually abused by two adult men, one of whom used his position as a church leader to prey on teenagers and boys. Three months after turning 18, Terry killed one of his abusers, the day after he had raped him.
But the jury had no idea about this abuse. Terry was too ashamed to bring it up. The prosecution, which knew about the abuse, didn’t share it with the defense lawyer, who was so incompetent he met with his client for the first time the day before the trial started. Terry’s co-defendant didn’t testify about the abuse because, as he now states in a sworn affidavit, the police and prosecution pressured him not to because they wanted to present the murder as a robbery.
Since the abuse has been revealed, jurors have come forward to say they would not have opted for a death sentence. Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that does not require the judge to instruct the jury that a life sentence means life without the possibility of parole, and jurors have also said they would not have voted for the death penalty if they had known that parole was not a possibility.
The death penalty in itself is barbaric, but it’s especially disturbing when there are mitigating circumstances. And sadly, Pennsylvania is a huge death penalty state. It has executed more than 400 people since the death penalty was reinstated, and has the fourth largest death row in the country. A bipartisan Senate task force in Pennsylvania is reviewing the state’s death penalty. Let’s hope they recommend a moratorium or, even better, abolition.