This morning, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that goes to the very heart of the issue of fairness. The question in Williams v. Pennsylvania is whether a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, who was the District Attorney at the time a case was prosecuted and personally approved seeking the death penalty, should recuse himself when it came up on appeal. According to Marc Bookman, Director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, “While you never want to guess how the Supreme Court is going to rule in a case, the justices clearly understood that there are multiple serious problems involved with former Chief Justice Castille’s refusal to recuse himself.”
To add insult to injury, when Castille ran for the PA Supreme Court (we still elect judges here in the Commonwealth) he boasted about his success in getting death sentences as a District Attorney. That sounds like a problem to me. Shawn Nolan, the Chief of the Capital Habeas Unit, Federal Community Defender summed it up nicely. “This is quite simple: when you prosecute a case and personal authorize the death penalty, you cannot later sit as a judge on that same case to decide whether your own office engaged in prosecutorial misconduct to obtain that death sentence. “
And it’s not as if the office of the Philadelphia District Attorney hasn’t had plenty of prosecutorial misconduct. In this case alone, prosecutors withheld mitigating evidence, leading Judge Sarmina to blow a proverbial gasket. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the prosecution schlepping boxes and boxes of material into her chambers when she ruled that prosecutorial misconduct was not OK in any case, much less one involving the death penalty.
“This is what happened here. Former Chief Justice Castille personally authorized seeking death against Terry Williams, a barely 18 year-old sexually abused teenage – repeatedly victimized by the man he killed. Then Justice Castille refused to recuse himself and whitewashed the misconduct of the lawyers in the office that he ran. We are confident that the Supreme Court will see this as an egregious violation of due process and will once again affirm its essential role of ensuring that American citizens can have confidence in the courts.”
Another observer remarked that “Several of the Justices seemed incredulous that any judge would believe that his involvement as the District Attorney in the case would not have prejudicial influence on his fellow justices. “Justice Kennedy responded to the prosecutor’s argument that any potential bias was diminished by the passage of time with, “You mean, the 30 years they kept him in solitary confinement works in favor of the state?”