Friday, June 10, 2016

A common sense decision

Terrence Williams was convicted of murder for killing Amos Norwood in 1984. Mr. Williams said he did it because Mr. Norwood had abused him when he was a child. Nonetheless, the District Attorney, Ronald D. Castille, made the decision to seek the death penalty.

In 2012 a Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) court stayed the execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing as a result of Brady violations on the part of the prosecutor.

In 2014, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court reinstated Mr. Williams' death sentence.

Nothing new there. Except that the chief justice was Mr. Ronald D. Castille. The same Ronald D. Castille who signed off on the death sentence almost 30 years before.

Yesterday, in Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15-5040 (2016),U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote in a 5-3 majority that decided a judge must recuse himself from ruling on a capital case in which he had a "significant personal involvement" as a prosecutor.

Makes perfect sense to me.

But the question is why did this have to go to the highest court in the land to make such a basic finding? Mr. Castille, of course, thinks the ruling is ridiculous. But it's Mr. Castille's logic (or lack thereof) that I find ridiculous.

Mr. Castille was an elected district attorney. He made the decision to seek the death penalty against Mr. Williams. He made that decision for any number of reasons. And he thought everything was kosher when the question of whether or not to reinstate the death penalty in the case came before him in his role as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court. At what point did this train run off the rails?

Mr. Castille's concern is that a good number of judges come out of the prosecutor's office and that their fingerprints are all over too many cases to keep track of. He's worried that judges will have to recuse themselves by the bucketload as a result of this opinion.

Maybe he's right.

And maybe that's not such a bad thing were it to happen.

Whether Mr. Castille wishes to admit it or not, his vote in the case in 2014 was nothing more than an affirmation of a decision he made in 1984 that someone deserved to die. He wasn't going to second-guess himself. There was no chance he would have voted against reinstating the death penalty because that would be an admission that he was wrong in the first place. I doubt seriously that any of his colleagues on the bench were going to call him out on it, either.

The conflict of interest is clear and Mr. Castille should have recused himself without being asked because of his involvement in the case at the trial court level. His failure to do so, and his insistence that he did nothing wrong or suspect, speaks volumes about his judgment, or lack thereof.

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