SCOTUS Slams Death-Penalty Outcome by Justice With Conflict

     WASHINGTON (CN) — A Pennsylvania judge who helped put a man on death row in his previous role as a prosecutor should have recused himself when that inmate’s appeal came up, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
     Capital sentences remain suspended in Pennsylvania under a 2015 moratorium imposed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, but Terrance Williams was in his third decade on death row for a 1984 murder when he won a stay of execution on the basis of false testimony and suppressed evidence.
     At trial, the prosecutor argued that 18-year-old Williams had killed 56-year-old Amos Norwood, bludgeoning him to death and setting him on fire, “for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home.”
     This did not come into question until 2012 when a friend of Williams who participated in the fatal beating revealed that Williams and Norwood had been in a sexual relationship.
     Marc Draper said the prosecution promised to write a letter to the parole board on his behalf if he gave false testimony at Williams’ trial.
     Though the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas granted Williams a new sentencing hearing, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated that stay.
     The court’s vote had been unanimous, but the participation of Chief Justice Ronald Castille drew Williams’ objection.
     Back when Williams was on trial, Castille had been the Philadelphia district attorney. Castille did not prosecute the case himself, but he did approve the request for the death penalty.
     The chief justice gave no explanation meanwhile as to why he refused to recuse himself from Williams’ appeal.     
     His concurring opinion in the case blasted the lower court for having “lost sight of its role as a neutral judicial officer” under the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), and for staying Williams’ execution “for no valid reason.”
     Castille had campaigned for his seat on the court by openly advocating for capital punishment, citing the 45 people he sent to death row while he served as district attorney – including Williams.
     His concurring opinion denounced the Federal Community Defender Office for its “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda,” saying such advocacy would turn postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.”
     Castille retired two weeks later.
     The U.S. Supreme Court reversed for Williams 5-3 today, saying due process had compelled Castille’s recusal.
     “Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority. “This risk so endangered the appearance of neutrality that his participation in the case ‘must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.'”
     Though the commonwealth said Philadelphia’s former DA had played “a mere ministerial role in capital sentencing decisions,” Kennedy said Castille’s “own comments while running for judicial office refute [this] claim.”
     “Chief Justice Castille’s willingness to take personal responsibility for the death sentences obtained during his tenure as district attorney indicate that, in his own view, he played a meaningful role in those sentencing decisions and considered his involvement to be an important duty of his office,” the ruling states.
     There is no indication that Castille knew about the alleged prosecutorial misconduct in Williams’ case, but Kennedy said “it would be difficult for a judge in his position not to view the PCRA court’s findings as a criticism of his former office and, to some extent, of his own leadership and supervision as district attorney.”
     Castille had been part of a unanimous decision to reinstate Williams’ death sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court said “an unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error even if the judge in question did not cast a deciding vote.”
     “The fact that the interested judge’s vote was not dispositive may mean only that the judge was successful in persuading most members of the court to accept his or her position,” Kennedy wrote. “That outcome does not lessen the unfairness to the affected party.”
     Justice Samuel Alito joined a dissent by Chief Justice John Roberts, which says Castille faced no obligation to recuse since the inmate’s habeas petition had no overlap with his approval for the death penalty nearly 30 years earlier as a DA.
     Precedent states that “the due-process clause is violated when a judge adjudicates the same question — based on the same facts — that he had already considered as a grand juror in the same case,” Roberts wrote. “Here, however, Williams does not allege that Chief Justice Castille had any previous knowledge of the contested facts at issue in the habeas petition, or that he had previously made any decision on the questions raised by that petition.”
     In a separate dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas emphasized that a postconviction proceeding should be treated as a new civil proceeding, not an extension of the criminal case.
     “Castille did not serve as both prosecutor and judge in the case before us,” Thomas wrote. “Even assuming Castille’s supervisory role as district attorney was tantamount to serving as ‘counsel’ in Williams’ criminal case, that case ended nearly five years before Castille joined the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.”
     There is no basis to find that Castille’s participation in the postconviction proceedings violated the due process clause, Thomas wrote.
     “Castille might have been ‘personally involved in a critical trial decision,’ but that ‘trial’ was Williams’ criminal trial, not the postconviction proceedings before us now,” the dissent continues. “Perhaps Castille’s participation in Williams’ postconviction proceeding was unwise, but it was within the bounds of historical practice. That should end this case, for it ‘is not for members of this court to decide from time to time whether a process approved by the legal traditions of our people is “due” process.'”
     In closing, Thomas stressed that the case at hand is not about the “accused.”
     “It is a case about the due process rights of the already convicted,” he wrote. “Whatever those rights might be, they do not include policing alleged violations of state codes of judicial ethics in postconviction proceedings. The due process clause does not require any and all conceivable procedural protections that members of this court think ‘Western liberal democratic government ought to guarantee to its citizens.'”
     Pennsylvania’s moratorium on capital punishment has left Williams under restrictive conditions reserved for death-row inmates.
     One factor that led the jury to sentence Williams to death in 1986 had been the teen’s significant history of violent felony convictions, including a previous conviction for a murder Williams had committed at age 17.
     Gov. Wolf has said the moratorium on the death penalty will remain in place until he receives a long-overdue 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, all individuals who gave up their appeals voluntarily.
     After the state’s last execution in 1999, every inmate on death row in Pennsylvania has been able to win delays.
     Pennsylvania law has no time limit on the length of a reprieve, so inmates can sit on death row for decades.

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