Justice for Damon Thibodeaux and Terrance Williams

Two victories from this past Friday highlight the continued problems that plague our death penalty system. On September 28, Damon Thibodeaux became the 141st person exonerated in the U.S. since 1973 when he was freed from death row in Louisiana. That same day, Terrance Williams, a Pennsylvania death row inmate who was scheduled to be executed this Wednesday, was granted a stay and a new sentencing hearing.

Thibodeaux spent 15 years on death row in Angola prison where he was isolated 23 hours per day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell for the 1996 rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. He was convicted and sentenced to death primarily based on his own confession, which was obtained after nine hours of interrogation by Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office detectives. After denying any involvement in the crime multiple times over the course of more than six hours throughout the night, Thibodeaux finally confessed to police in the early morning . “At that point I was tired,” Thibodeaux said. “I was hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.” He recanted his confession that same day.

Thibodeaux’s release followed a rare, five year joint reinvestigation by his defense attorneys and Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr. that concluded that his confession was obviously false. Thibodeaux’s account of what happened did not match up with evidence from the crime scene, and although he admitted that he had raped the victim, no evidence of sexual assault was ever found. No DNA evidence was found on his clothing, and blood that was lifted from the wire that was used to strangle the victim did not match Thibodeaux. The cost of the reinvestigation was more than $500,000, an expense shared by the defense and prosecution.

Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project and part of Thibodeaux’s defense team, noted that this was the 300th case nationally in which DNA evidence was used to exonerate someone wrongly convicted and, like Thibodeaux’s, 25 percent of those cases included false confessions. “People have a very hard time with the concept that an innocent person could confess to a crime that they didn’t commit,” said Scheck. “But it happens a lot. It’s the ultimate risk that an innocent man could be executed.”

Terrance Williams was sentenced to death in Pennsylvania for the 1984 killing of Amos Norwood but was granted a stay for his scheduled October 3 execution and issued a new sentencing hearing on Friday by Philadelphia Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, who insists prosecutors suppressed important mitigating evidence that likely would have caused the jury to give him a different sentence. Williams was only 18 when the murder occurred, but says he had been sexually abused by Norwood since the age of 13. Norwood was a church deacon and worked with underprivileged boys through a church theater program.

Marc Draper, an accomplice in the murder and a childhood friend of Williams, says he was offered a deal by trial prosecutor Andrea Gelman Foulkes if he testified that he and Williams fatally beat Norwood during a robbery. He took the deal, thinking he would be paroled after 10 or 15 years. Instead, he received a life sentence. In recent affidavits, he admits that he had told Foulkes and detectives about the victim’s sexual abuse of Williams and he claims they didn’t want to hear it. Foulkes even testified last week that she had suspected that there had been a sexual relationship between Norwood, who was 56, and 18-year-old Williams, but neither she nor the police pursued it.  Williams’ defense lawyer and jurors also never heard about statements from Norwood’s wife and pastor about prior fondling complaints and his odd interactions with teenage boys.

In earlier appeals, federal courts have called the work of Williams’ now-disbarred trial lawyer “unconstitutionally deficient,” although they continued to uphold his death sentence. Federal public defenders who have been representing Williams since 1996 warn that the injustices seen in this case happen often.“That we were talking about executing somebody who meets his lawyer a day before trial is an indictment of the system. The fact we’re talking about this new evidence a week before execution is a bigger indictment of the system,” said public defender Victor Abreu.

Williams’ fate is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after District Attorney Seth Williams denounced the ruling by Judge Sarmina and his office immediately appealed. Shawn Nolan, one of Williams’ attorneys said “It is legally and ethically unconscionable that Seth Williams and his assistants continue to advocate for the execution of Terry Williams after hiding significant evidence for 28 years from defense counsel, jurors, the courts, the Board of Pardons, and the citizens of Pennsylvania.”

Williams also has a clemency petition pending with the state Board of Pardons, which had two hearings over the last two weeks on Williams’ plea to have his death sentence commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The five-member board must vote unanimously to recommend clemency to the governor. The clemency vote failed on September 17 with a 3-2 vote for clemency. However, they agreed to revisit Williams’ case last Thursday but did not issue a ruling. The board could be asked to reconsider the petition for clemency if the state Supreme Court overturns Sarmina’s ruling.

There is a chance that Williams could still be executed. You can take action by calling the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office at 215-686-8000. You will get a voicemail menu. Select option 3 and leave a message that Terrance Williams should not be executed and that he deserves a new sentencing hearing. If you have not already done so, you can also sign this petition calling for his clemency.

While Friday brought good news for these men, their cases are symbols of everything that can and does go wrong in so many death penalty cases in our country. The system remains severely broken and it must be abolished.

(Photos of Damon Thibodeaux and Terrance Williams as teenagers courtesy of FRROLE and The Atlantic)

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