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Williams v. Pennsylvania

Supreme Court of the United States

February 29, 2016, Argued; June 9, 2016, Decided

No. 15-5040


 [*1903]  JUSTICE Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, the [***6]  Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated the decision of a postconviction court, which had granted relief to a prisoner convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. One of the justices on the State Supreme Court had been the district attorney who gave his official approval to seek the death penalty in the prisoner’s case. The justice in question denied the prisoner’s motion for recusal and participated in the decision to deny relief. The question presented is whether the justice’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This Court’s precedents set forth an objective standard that requires recusal when the likelihood of bias on the part of the judge “‘is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.’” Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U. S. 868, 872, 129 S. Ct. 2252, 173 L. Ed. 2d 1208 (2009) (quoting Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U. S. 35, 47, 95 S. Ct. 1456, 43 L. Ed. 2d 712 (1975)). Applying this standard, the Court concludes that due process compelled the justice’s recusal.

Petitioner is Terrance Williams. In 1984, soon after Williams turned 18, he murdered 56-year-old Amos Norwood in Philadelphia. At trial, the Commonwealth presented evidence that Williams and a friend, Marc Draper, had been standing on a street corner when Norwood drove by. Williams and Draper requested a ride home from Norwood, who [***7]  agreed. Draper then gave Norwood false directions that led him to drive toward a cemetery. Williams and Draper ordered Norwood out of the car and into the cemetery. There, the two men tied Norwood in his own clothes and beat him to death. Testifying for the Commonwealth, Draper suggested that robbery was the motive for the crime. Williams took the stand in his own defense, stating that he was not involved in the crime and did not know the victim.

 [**139]  During the trial, the prosecutor requested permission from her supervisors in the district attorney’s office to seek the death penalty against Williams. To support the request, she prepared a memorandum setting forth the details of the crime, information supporting two statutory aggravating factors, and facts in mitigation. After reviewing the memorandum, the then-district attorney of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille, wrote this note at the bottom of the document: “Approved to proceed on the death penalty.” App. 426a.

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136 S. Ct. 1899 *; 195 L. Ed. 2d 132 **; 2016 U.S. LEXIS 3774 ***; 84 U.S.L.W. 4359; 26 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 224


Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

Subsequent History: On remand at, Post-conviction relief granted at, By an equally divided Court at, Stay granted by, Remanded by Commonwealth v. Williams, 2017 Pa. LEXIS 1926 (Pa., Aug. 22, 2017)


Commonwealth v. Williams, 629 Pa. 533, 105 A.3d 1234, 2014 Pa. LEXIS 3329 (Dec. 15, 2014)

Disposition: 629 Pa. 533, 105 A. 3d 1234, vacated and remanded.


chief justice, recusal, sentence, bias, due process, disqualification, postconviction, postconviction proceedings, death penalty, adjudicate, district attorney, actual bias, proceedings, convicted, murder, disqualified, habeas petition, involvement, sexual, marks, judicial disqualification, death sentence, participated, quotation, witnesses, critical decision, vacated, memo, pecuniary interest, criminal case

Constitutional Law, Fundamental Rights, Procedural Due Process, Scope of Protection, Criminal Law & Procedure, Preliminary Proceedings, Pretrial Motions & Procedures, Disqualification & Recusal, Legal Ethics, Judicial Conduct, Appeals, Procedural Matters, Reversible Error, Structural Errors, Standards of Review, Harmless & Invited Error, Constitutional Rights, Appeals