© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Supreme Court Overturns Death Sentence In Judge Recusal Case

Jon Elswick

The Supreme Court has ruled for the first time that judges must recuse themselves from reviewing cases in which they had a prior significant role.

By a vote of 5-3, the justices ruled that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied a defendant a fair hearing in a death penalty case because the chief justice refused to disqualify himself, even though he had been the district attorney overseeing the case decades earlier.

The court's ruling came in the case of Terrence Williams, a violent teenager who from an early age was the victim of rampant and vicious beatings at home and sexual abuse from neighbors, older men, even a middle school teacher.

Ultimately, at age 18, he was convicted in the brutal killing of a church deacon. The district attorney of Philadelphia at the time was Ronald Castille. He personally authorized seeking the death penalty in the case, and would later campaign for a seat on the state Supreme Court, noting that he'd sent 45 men to death row.

In 2012, after nearly three decades of failed appeals, and five days before Williams was to be executed, a state court judge, after reviewing previously undisclosed files from the prosecutor's office, issued a stay of execution on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. The judge concluded that the prosecution had hidden mitigating evidence that the murdered deacon had been molesting boys — a fact relevant to Williams' post-conviction claim that the deacon had long been sexually molesting him.

The state immediately appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where, by then, former DA Castille was chief justice. The defense moved to have Castille recuse himself, but he refused, and the six-justice court then reinstated the death penalty by a unanimous vote.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court threw out that decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, declared that Castille's refusal to step aside had deprived the defendant of a fair hearing and denied him the due process of law guaranteed by the constitution.

"Bias is easy to attribute to others and difficult to discern in oneself," Kennedy said. Therefore there must be an objective standard that applies routinely, he said, instead of having to determine whether actual bias exists.

The objective rule announced by the High Court, holds that "an unconstitutional potential for bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator" in a significant aspect of a case — here, the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty.

Kennedy rejected the notion that because the state Supreme Court had been unanimous in reinstating the death penalty, the outcome would have been the same even if Castille had not participated. It could just as well mean, said Kennedy, that Castille was able to persuade the other judges to accept his decision.

That said, most experts seem to believe that this case was something of an anomaly.

"I don't think most judges would have done what Chief Justice Castille did, frankly," said Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the National Center for State Courts.

But Steven Lubet, a specialist in judicial ethics at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, said the decision is "a big deal" because it reminds judges of their inability to recognize their own biases.

"That's just a crucial concept in judicial ethics, that even judges who think they can be fair, who believe they're being fair, may still be subject to unrecognized biases," he said.

Dissenting from Thursday's ruling were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas.

Roberts, writing for himself and Alito, reiterated his view that the constitution does not apply to recusal questions.

Justice Thomas, writing for himself alone, said that in his view, once a person has been tried and convicted, he does not have the same rights to due process of law because, after a first set of appeals, the case is over. The defendant, said Thomas, by then has no right to counsel, no right to demand that the state turn over exculpatory evidence that was not disclosed, and no right to a claim of actual innocence.

Northewestern's Lubet called the dissent "radical" and the only truly surprising thing about Thursday's opinions. "I don't think anybody has ever argued that one is entitled to less fairness depending on the stage of the proceeding," he said.

Terrence Williams' case will now be sent back to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for a new sentencing hearing. Three of the six justices who reinstated his death penalty are now off the court, including Castille.

Moreover, the court has been so wracked by scandal that the state legislature is now considering whether to abandon the election of supreme court justices and to substitute a merit selection appointment process.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.