Supreme Court Delays Va. Execution
By Joan Biskupic and Donald P. Baker
The U.S. Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would take up the appeal of condemned Virginia killer Terry Williams, who has been on death row for 13 years and was slated to be executed today.
On Friday, the justices issued an order postponing Williams's execution. Now that they have agreed to hear his argument that he was denied adequate legal help at his sentencing, it's likely that Williams's case will not be resolved until sometime next year.
An eventual ruling in the dispute, which also will address a provision of a 1996 federal law intended to curtail the appeals process in death penalty cases, will affect condemned inmates nationwide.
Williams was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1985 slaying of an elderly Danville man, Harris Thomas Stone, who was found in his bed. The death originally was not considered a homicide, and the medical examiner, finding that Stone's blood-alcohol content was at 0.41 percent, determined that he died of alcohol poisoning. About six months later, however, Williams confessed that he had struck Stone with a gardening tool known as a mattock and taken his wallet containing $3.
Williams was found guilty in 1986 of capital murder and robbery. He contended in his petition to the high court that his lead trial lawyer, who himself was in the throes of a disciplinary hearing during the trial, failed to begin preparing for the sentencing phase until about a week beforehand and presented "virtually nothing" to the jury that would have influenced it to give Williams life in prison rather than death.
In its order agreeing to hear the case of Williams v. Taylor yesterday, the Supreme Court said it would focus on standards for permitting a prisoner to challenge a death sentence – and on whether Williams must demonstrate that if he hadn't had such a bad lawyer, all 12 jurors would have voted for life in prison rather than the death penalty.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Williams's contention that he should be resentenced, using a particularly stiff standard of review and ruling that any errors his lawyer made during the 1986 sentencing did not unconstitutionally prejudice the jury.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has recognized that there are important legal issues at stake in this case," said Brian A. Powers, the Washington attorney representing Williams on appeal.
Two daughters of the victim are among those who oppose Williams's being put to death.
Pollie Cosby, 44, of Chatham, Va., said yesterday that Williams deserves leniency – life in prison without the possibility of parole – because "if he hadn't confessed, no one would have known" that her father had been murdered.
"That's the main reason," said Cosby, who added that otherwise she is not opposed to the death penalty.
She said her sister, Janidean Stones, 37, of Gretna, Va., also opposes the execution and, unlike her, opposes all death sentences as a matter of principle.
Meanwhile, a group of religious and civil rights organizations is planning a protest in Charlottesville today against the four other executions still scheduled this month in Virginia.
The coalition – which includes the Charlottesville Friends Meeting, Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice – plans a protest on the date of each of the scheduled executions.
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