by Sarah Small and Hunter McCorkel
On October 3rd 2012, death row prisoner Terrance Williams narrowly avoided execution. If he had been executed, his would have been the first execution in Pennsylvania since 1999. However, his life still hangs in the balance. Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is appealing the stay of execution, and if he has his way, Terrance Williams will be killed before the year is over.
Terry Williams was sentenced to die for killing Amos Norwood in 1984. He was eighteen years old. After his sentencing, it was revealed that Williams had been routinely sexually abused by Norwood, and had been sexually and physically abused by family members and men in his community since he was a child. After his arrest, Williams was also convicted of killing Herbert Hamilton, another man who had sexually abused him. Evidence of Williams’ abuse was not presented at his trial, and numerous jurors have since stated that they would not have voted for the death penalty if they had known about the violence perpetrated against Williams. The case has been gaining national attention due to the large number of supporters for Williams’ clemency, including Amos Norwood’s widow. Despite the national spotlight, it is becoming clear that Pennsylvania, under the leadership of Governor Tom Corbett, is poised to restart an era of executions.
Terry Williams’ abuse history and the role that sexual assault played in the murders have become central to both the media coverage and Williams’ court appeals. At the time of his trials, Williams did not tell his lawyers or the court that he had been sexually abused by the men he killed. It should come as no surprise that given our culture of silencing and shaming sexual assault survivors, Terry Williams would not disclose his abuse history. Since then it has been revealed that numerous community members knew of other young people who had been abused by Norwood or Hamilton, both of whom were in positions of local leadership. Williams was failed by these communities, which, through their own silence, allowed his abuse to continue for years. And for Williams, as well as so many other survivors of abuse, the intervention of the state only escalated a cycle of violence rather than breaking it. This execution would not offer justice for Terry Williams. It would not provide justice for Amos Norwood and Herbert Hamilton, for their families, or for Terry’s family. And it does not show a path forward for all of us in Pennsylvania who are struggling to address and prevent sexual abuse.
When solutions to sexual assault are put in the hands of the state, survivors are not helped — they’re criminalized. Survivors who fight back against their abusers often face harsh penalties from the state. Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot towards her abusive husband, is just one recent example. We must recognize that state violence against sexual abuse and domestic violence survivors is also happening here in Pennsylvania. These cases demonstrate the urgent need for communities to develop solutions to violence and harm that support survivors rather than criminalizing them. Survivors of abuse do not and cannot receive justice through a court system that penalizes them. Likewise, incarceration does not address the systemic violence and trauma that leads people to engage in abusive behavior. People who go to prison for abusing others often leave prison with additional trauma and with few or no new tools to rejoin their communities. We must break these cycles of abuse and retribution and instead look for models that heal and transform us.
In Pennsylvania, many people are trapped at the intersection of policies of neglect and criminalization. Funding for institutions that keep people safe and healthy is being stripped away, while at the same time “tough on crime” policies funnel more and more young people into the prison system. Governor Corbett cut $840 million from public education in 2011 alone, while continuing to spend $685 million dollars on building more prisons. General assistance for low income Pennsylvanians has been cut while no additional job opportunities have been created. The loss of educational opportunities, health care and basic financial assistance is making it harder for all of us to survive and thrive in Pennsylvania. And while PA currently has 200 people on death row, over 4,500 more are serving “life without parole” sentences. “Life without parole” is often referred to as Pennsylvania’s other death sentence, because it condemns thousands of men and women to die in prison. Terry Williams’ case is making headlines due to the overt willingness of the state to execute a victim of violence, but thousands of Pennsylvanians are suffering slow deaths due to Corbett’s policies of neglect.
Right now, the state is breaking ground on two new prisons in Montgomery County. The prisons, which will cost over $400 million to build, include a brand new 100-bed death row. Just one year past the execution of Troy Davis, we are faced with the reality that Pennsylvania is one of a shrinking number of states still performing executions. These new prisons will expand Pennsylvania’s reliance on incarceration and capital punishment while diverting funding from basic human needs like housing, healthcare, and financial assistance for the poor. Governor Corbett is killing Pennsylvanians- by neglect because of lack of medical assistance, by closing schools and poisoning our water, by long prison terms and “life without parole” sentences that force people to die in prison, and, if he has his way, by the planned execution of Terrance Williams.
While Terry Williams no longer has a scheduled execution date, the state is still pursuing his death. Real justice for Terry Williams means fighting not just for a stop to his execution, but for his release. Terrance Williams should not die in prison, either from old age OR lethal injection. We believe that the interest of justice would be better served by an investment in funding life-sustaining programs like education, community mediation, healthcare, and general assistance. Now is the time to end capital punishment. Now is the time to end life without parole. Now is the time to stop building prisons and invest in a better future for all of us.
This statement is a collaboration between Decarcerate PA and the Philly Survivor Support Collective. It is an effort to broaden the conversation about capital punishment, state violence and sexual assault.
Sarah Small and Hunter McCorkel are members of Decarcerate PA, a grassroots campaign working to end mass incarceration in Pennsylvania. Hunter is also a member of Philly Survivor Support Collective, which supports survivors of sexual assault in directing their own healing, offers alternatives to the legal system for survivors seeking justice and safety and works to transform our communities to end sexual assault.
For more information about these groups, visit