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PA Death-Penalty Case Headed to the Supremes

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court on Thursday took up the case of a death-penalty case in Pennsylvania where the governor has imposed a moratorium on executions.

Former high school star quarterback Terrance Williams was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing a 56-year-old man.

Though Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, had signed the death warrant for Williams in his final days in office last year, the inmate won a reprieve after the Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf took office and quickly imposed a moratorium on the state's death penalty.

In his petition for certiorari, Williams claims that his case was tainted by a conflict of interest.

Williams noted that one member of the unanimous state Supreme Court to uphold his conviction last year had been a local prosecutor at the time of his trial.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille has since retired, but Williams noted that the state judge won his election to the bench with a capital-punishment platform.

Reuters reported that Williams introduced evidence showing that the man of whom he was convicted of bludgeoning to death in 1984 sexually abused him.

Williams also set the body on fire. He was 18 at the time.

District Attorney Seth Williams fought Gov. Wolf's death-penalty moratorium as unconstitutional in a bid to execute Williams on March 4, 2015.

The new governor claims the reprieve is set until specific concerns have been addressed and questions answered. Wolf has said the moratorium will remain in place until he receives a report from a legislative task force that has been studying the effectiveness of capital punishment since 2011.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976, Pennsylvania has executed only three people, and those three inmates all voluntarily had given up their appeals.

The state's last execution was carried out over 15 years ago in 1999. Since then, inmates on death row have been able to win delays.

Since Pennsylvania state law does not have a time limit on the length of a reprieve, inmates can sit on death row for decades.

DA Williams emphasized that Pennsylvania law designed reprieves "to be limited in their duration and purpose."

"They exist to temporarily permit the examination of last-minute evidence or legal claims," the DA said in a statement.

There are many theories as to why Pennsylvania fails to carry out executions. Some attribute it opposition in federal Third Circuit, or aggressive tactics from lawyers who defend people on death row. Others point to the number of stayed or overturned death sentences as a result of DNA evidence or adequate representation at trial

Per its custom, the Supreme Court did not issue any statement in granting a writ of certiorari for the inmate Thursday.

The court also granted Williams leave to proceed in forma pauperis.

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