WASHINGTON – Dissent in a capital murder case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that prosecutors can't judge actions they've prosecuted, is as instructive as the majority ruling, an expert in said during a recent interview.
The difference between the majority and dissenting opinions in Williams vs. Pennsylvania was whether the justices still were considering a capital murder case, David Smyth, an attorney with Brooks Pierce's Raleigh, N.C., office, said during a Pennsylvania Record interview.
The majority considered the case as that of a convicted Pennsylvania murderer appealing his case, while one of the dissenting justices said it was a different case, said Smyth, who represents corporations and individuals facing federal and state government investigations and complex litigation.
"It's whether there were issues with how the evidence was disclosed that prevented him [Terrance Williams] from presenting his case," Smyth said. "Or were these, essentially, different cases?"
It was the latter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion in the case.
"A reader of the majority opinion might mistakenly think that the prosecution against Williams is ongoing, for the majority makes no mention of the fact that Williams’ sentence has been final for more than 25 years," Thomas wrote.
"Because the postconviction posture of this case is of crucial importance in considering the question presented, I begin with the protracted procedural history of Williams’ repeated attempts to collaterally attack his sentence."
Terrance Williams was convicted in the brutal 1984 robbery and murders, five months apart, of 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton and Amos Norwood, when he was 17 and 18 years old, according to court records and published reports.
Williams was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years in Hamilton's slaying and of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in Norwood's killing.
Ronald Castille was Philadelphia's District Attorney throughout Williams’ trial, sentencing, and appeal, and he personally authorized his office to seek the death penalty in this case. Most accounts state that Castille had little involvement otherwise and Smyth said that involvement was minimal.
"He found himself dealing with the case a long time after the fact," Smyth said.
That was more than five years later, when Williams began filing the first of what would be four postconviction relief petitions under the Post-Conviction Relief Act. The first three petitions were denied by the postconviction court. Williams' appeal contained 23 alleged errors from his original trial.
None of those alleged errors or any other part of Williams' early appeals mentioned Castille, who by then was Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Though Williams' attorneys didn't mention it earlier in the appeals process, Williams now claims, through his clemency website, that Castille was elected largely because of his history in this case.
"Chief Justice Castille was the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia through the trial, capital sentencing, and direct appeal proceedings in Mr. Williams’ case," the website claims. "As District Attorney, he personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against Mr. Williams. He later campaigned successfully for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. While on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Chief Justice Castille voted to overturn the decision from the lower court which vacated Mr. Williams' death sentence."
Smyth said he couldn't recall a situation quite the same as that of Castille sitting as a judge over a case in which he previously played a prosecutorial part, but that, given how small a legal community can be even in a large city, it's not completely unheard of.
"It's something judges sometimes have to deal with," he said. "These conflict issues - or the appearance of conflict issues - do come up."
Despite that, Castille's participation in the case was not addressed and Williams' attorneys didn't bring it up the first three times the Philadelphia Supreme Court affirmed the denials of Williams' postconviction relief petitions, Smyth said.
That changed when Williams' petitioned for federal habeas relief, which was granted by a lower court. When Williams' case again went before the state Supreme Court, Williams' attorneys moved for Castille to recuse himself.
It is not clear why Williams' attorneys waited so long to bring it up, Smyth said.
"There's just no telling," he said. "I don't mean in any way to beat up on his lawyers, but they may have thought, earlier on, that it was not a winning argument. But later, with someone's life on the line, they may have reached a point where they felt they needed to use all the tools in their tool kit."
Castille refused to recuse himself and later joined the high court's opinion that reversed the lower court’s grant of habeas relief and its stay of execution.
When the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the opinion of the 5-3 majority June 9 that there had been a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when Castille did not recuse himself.
"Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’ case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias," Kennedy wrote in the court's opinion. "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."
The decision vacated the state Supreme Court's judgment in Williams' case and ordered it remanded for further proceedings.
However, in his own dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas took issue with the majority, saying their conclusion is flawed.
"The specter of bias alone in a judicial proceeding is not a deprivation of due process," Thomas wrote. "Rather than constitutionalize every judicial disqualification rule, the Court has left such rules to legislatures, bar associations, and the judgment of individual adjudicators.
"Williams, moreover, is not a criminal defendant. His complaint is instead that the due process protections in his state postconviction proceedings - an altogether new civil matter, not a continuation of his criminal trial - were lacking.
"Ruling in Williams’ favor, the Court ignores this posture and our precedents commanding less of state postconviction proceedings than of criminal prosecutions involving defendants whose convictions are not yet final."
In other words, the case Castille considered during the post-conviction appeals process is not the same case as when Williams was found guilty of murder, a case in which Castille did participate, Smyth said.
"The issue was not whether he was guilty but whether the evidence that was not disclosed would have prevented him from presenting his case," Smyth said. "So Thomas is saying, essentially, these are different cases. You can't be a judge in a case you prosecuted but if this is a different case, then there's no bias."
For Williams himself, it's not clear what difference the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling will make, at least in the short term, Smyth said.
"This doesn't mean he's going to get a new trial, he's not going to be set free," he said. "For him, this might not mean too much but, really, it's hard to tell at this point."