Supreme Court to Rule Regarding Judicial Bias in (Another) Death Penalty Case

Like many cases involving the death penalty, Williams v. Pennsylvania is a long story.

Terrance Williams was sentenced to death for killing Amos Norwood during a 1984 robbery in Philadelphia when Williams was eighteen. Williams claimed at trial he did not know Norwood, who was fifty-six.

In 2012 Williams’ co-conspirator Marc Draper revealed, among other things, that the prosecutor urged him to falsely testify that the motive for the murder was robbery, not that Norwood had sexually abused Williams, and the prosecutor wrote an undisclosed letter to the parole board on behalf of Draper. A hearing revealed the prosecutor failed to disclose extensive evidence of Norwood’s homosexual ephebophilia (attraction to teenagers).

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the lower court’s decision to reverse Williams’ death sentence. The court concluded that Williams was aware at trial “of potential witnesses and information that would establish Norwood’s homosexual attraction to teenage males.”

One of the Justices deciding the case was Justice Castille. He was the elected prosecutor during Williams’ trial and earlier appeal, in that capacity he approved pursuing the death penalty in this case. He campaigned for judge citing the number of defendants he had sent to death row (45), including Williams. But his vote in this case was not decisive.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide two issues in this case. First, whether Justice Castille’s decision not to recuse himself despite his previous involvement with this case and his public statements about the death penalty violate the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Second, the Court will decide whether it matters that Justice Castille’s vote wasn’t decisive.

Williams argues that the right to a “fair and impartial tribunal” was not met in this case where Justice Castille was part of the “accusatory process” and campaigned to enforce the death penalty. Pennsylvania responds by noting that Castille wasn’t personally involved in litigating this case while he was the elected prosecutor of an office employing 225 attorneys and disposing of 50,000 cases annually.

Both parties acknowledge that the lower courts are divided over the question of whether bias of a judge violates due process even though the biased judge does not cast the decisive vote.