† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm
Victims/Offenders and The Case of Terry Williams
by nancy a heitzeg
Public discourse about “victims” and “offenders” often draws a bright line between the two. Good and evil, innocent and guilty — no overlap, no shades of gray. Reality, however, is always more complicated, and so too the question of “victims” and “offenders”. Sociologists, psychologists and criminologists have long struggled to clarify the complex relationship between victimization and criminal offending.
We know that particularly with regard to violent crime, victims and offenders tend to know each other. We know that long battered women may one day kill their abusers, in a preemptive version of self-defense. We know too that early childhood trauma and violent victimization may play a role in adult violence. While most victims never become offenders, child abuse histories are very frequently reported in incarcerated populations. No where is this more evident than in death row populations. For example, a recent study found that in a sample of death row inmates, 100 percent had been subjected to neglect, 95 percent were physically abused, and over 80 percent had experienced a level of abuse and violence that met criteria for categorization as “terrorization”.
Terry Williams is no exception — both Victim/Offender.
A Case for Clemency: Terrance “Terry” Williams
On October 3, Terry Williams is scheduled to be executed by the Pennsylvania for a murder committed in 1984, when he was barley 18 years old. Mr. Williams would be the first involuntary execution in the state since 1962. The case has sparked widespread calls for a commutation to life without parole in light of evidence that Mr. Williams suffered a lifetime of physical, emotional and sexual abuse that began at age 6. He was abused by his mother and a series of “trusted” adults, including a teacher, and ultimately the two men he murdered, Herbert Hamilton and Amos Norwood.
Call for clemency rest on this trauma, as well as the fact that it was hidden from the jury. Supporters argue that Pennsylvania should not execute Terry Williams because:
- Terry suffered horrific sexual and physical abuse during his childhood and no one intervened to get him help when he was boy;
- The jury did not know about his history of childhood sexual abuse and trauma;
- The jury did not know that the men he killed were his abusers;
- Terry was only 18 years old at the time of the crime for which he was sentenced to death and the jury did not know about the psychological impact of sexual abuse on someone as young as Terry;
- Jurors did not know that he would never be eligible for parole;
- Jurors have stated that they would not have voted for death if they had known about his sexual abuse and ineligibility for parole; and
- The victim’s widow does not want Terry executed for her husband’s killing.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons have the power to intervene, stop the execution, and reduce Terry Williams’ sentence from death to life without the possibility of parole. Public calls for a commutation are increasing.
Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and numerous other state coalitions against sexual violence and several human rights organizations joined 35 child advocates, 36 former prosecutors and judges, 48 law professors, 49 mental health professionals, and dozens of faith leaders in publicly calling for Terry’s death sentence to be commuted.
The supporters include Frank Cervone, Executive Director of the Support Center for Child Advocates ; Delilah Rumburg, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape; Sue Osthoff, Director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women; Wendy Aguirre, Executive Director for Court Appointed Special Advocates of Philadelphia; Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia; the European Union, and numerous organizations including Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
In addition, the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment, a bipartisan group that includes state lawmakers, asked Republican Governor Corbett to postpone all planned executions until it completes a study of the death penalty and announces its findings in December 2013.
On Sept. 17, the Board of Pardons voted 3-2 in favor of clemency for Williams, but a unanimous recommendation is needed for the governor to grant a commutation. While the execution is still scheduled for October 3, a judge has agreed to an emergency hearing on September 20, to determine whether evidence of Williams’ history of sexual abuse was wrongfully with held at trial.
Please support on-going efforts to finally abolish capital punishment in the USA:
- Death Penalty Information Center offers a wealth of factual and analytical resources – print and podcast – about the death penalty in the United States. Includes a state by state data bank.
- National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty offers news and resources for those who are committed to or want to know more about the case for abolishing capital punishment in the United States.
- Death Penalty Discourse Network, closely associated with the work of Sister Helen Prejean, is dedicated to deepening and broadening the discourse about the death penalty. This site is especially useful for Catholics who want to talk about/work to abolish the death penalty.
- Equal Justice USA, EJUSA’s core strategic approach is to partner with state organizations to build effective grassroots campaigns that increase public understanding of the death penalty’s flaws and translate that public understanding into concrete change.
- Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, founded in 1976, MVFR is a national organization of family members of victims of both homicide and executions who oppose the death penalty in all cases.
- State groups working to abolish the death penalty.
Final Thoughts and Questions
May the State of Pennsylvania spare Terry Williams execution. The case is clear — while now convicted as an “offender”, he was once without doubt, a “victim” too and that should serve as some mitigation. There is nothing to be gained by victimizing him once again — this time with the power of the State.
Still this case revived old questions for me – questions about the impact of gender and sexual orientation, questions about the death penalty abolition movement and the end game.
Homophobia, Heteronormitivity and Mitigation
First of all, The Terry Williams case is emerging as an issue in a Pennsylvania still rocked by the Penn State child sexual abuse scandal and the context of older powerful men abusing young boys. Is part of the horror rooted in a homophobic subtext? Does the Williams case especially resonate because of the some unspoken subtext, because of some undercurrent that suggests that male on male sexual violence is somehow the worst of all???
I cannot help but recall Aileen Wuornos, the so-called “first female serial killer” who suffered a litany of childhood abuse, neglect and abandonment. Wuornos later went to become a hitch-hiking prostitute who claimed self-defense in the killing several men who picked her up. None of that mattered. As Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock note in Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States:
Crucial evidence that would have lent support to Wuornos’ claim of self-defense was located through the FBI database by an NBC Dateline reporter, but not until Wuornos was already on death row. In fact, Mallory had been convicted of violent rape and served a ten-year sentence in another estate. The discovery changed nothing. Wuronos’ own attorneys failed to locate the records, and if prosecutors had this information, they did not disclose it. Potentially mitigating evidence of Wuornos’ horrifically abusive childhood also failed to win any sympathy or save her from a sentence of death. In the eyes of the court, Wuornos’ perceived depravity was so great that any violence that she experienced, whether recently or in childhood, was not enough to justify an exercise of mercy.”
Which “victims” matter and when?? Are women and girls sexually abused by men somehow less sympathetic than their male counter-parts?? Especially when they respond to abuse with violence?? Is homophobia an under-current that allows us to mitigate male violence in response to same-sex rape in a way that we never do for women/girls raped by men?
We need to ask the questions even we might not like the answers.
Meaningful Alternatives to the Death Penalty and Prison Abolition
And finally, even if he is spared death, where is the justice for Terry Williams??
While it is preferable to the death penalty, life in prison without the possibility of parole doesn’t seem much like justice either. Yet LWOP is the primary sentencing option presented to persuade the public to forgo capital punishment — an easy solution to quell public fears, but a solution that fails to address the role of structural violence, failed systems and the ultimate failure of our reliance on the prison as a panacea.
The Terry Williams case reminds of a conversation I had with one of the lead attorneys at The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. She began her career defending clients in capital cases. She discussed her last case, a young man who suffered a long history of abuse and neglect. She described multiple turning points on his long road to prison, points where some sort of intervention could have turned the tide the other way. There was none. And so, she ended up defending him in the penalty phase of a capital case, where the only options left now were death or Life without Parole. She won what she now describes as a hollow victory. It was time, she said, to turn her attention upstream to education and prevention and efforts to end our reliance on cages.
Because prison cannot be posited as victory.
I hope too that the death penalty abolition advocates will someday do the same. When capital punishment in the USA is finally over, their abolitionist attention must turn to the failed prison industrial complex. The abolition of the machinery of death alone is not – has never been – enough.
Where will you be when the death penalty is over???