The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the role of former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice, Ronald Castille, in a Philadelphia murder appeal from 2014. Castille served on the court from 1994 until 2014 (from 2008 until 2014, he served as Chief Justice). He also worked as a prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office from 1971 until 1986 before he was elected as the District Attorney in Philadelphia. He served in that capacity until 1991.
Related: Unsolved Philadelphia Murder Cases – On the Rise Again (February 8, 2016)
In 1984, 18 year old Terrance Williams was arrested and charged with murder in Philadelphia. Castille who was the District Attorney of Philadelphia at the time signed off on a decision to prosecute Williams and seek the death penalty. Williams was later tried and convicted of murder. Initially, Williams claimed innocence and that he had never even met the victim. He was sentenced to death. Williams has since claimed that he suffered years of sexual abuse by the victim beginning when he was 13 years old.
In 2012, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina overturned Williams’ sentence, finding that prosecutors had failed to share evidence that the victim had sexually abused other teenagers. Judge Sarmina granted Williams a new penalty hearing under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act, concluding that the victim’s prior acts of sexual abuse of teens could have been used to challenge the prosecution’s sympathetic portrayal of the victim at sentencing. Hence, the death penalty might have been avoided.
The Commonwealth appealed, and in December 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Sarmina’s ruling. Williams’ appellate lawyers sought to have Castille recuse himself from the appeal, but he declined. In the court’s opinion, Castille as Chief Justice, found that Williams’ PCRA petition was untimely. In addition, the court found that Williams failed to meet the burden of proof with respect to a Brady violation.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case and whether Castille should have recused himself. The Court considered judicial ethics issues in general and when recusal is warranted. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office argued that a judge’s prior career is important and helps establish experience needed to sit on the bench. Since Castille oversaw roughly 2,000 murder cases during his tenure as the District Attorney, the Commonwealth attorneys argued that Castille could not possibly be expected to recuse himself from every case originating from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.
On the other hand, Williams’ defense lawyers argued that Castille was biased for two main reasons. First, it was Castille’s office, under his tenure, which sought the death penalty in Williams’ case. Second, the underlying claims involved prosecutorial misconduct (withholding evidence) of Castille’s office. Therefore, Castille was naturally biased when the PA Supreme Court decided the appeal in 2014.
It will be interesting to see what the Court ultimately decides. Given the issues, Williams’ sentence may be overturned and a new sentencing hearing ordered. Stay tuned.
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