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Commonwealth v. Williams

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

August 22, 2017


          SUBMITTED: August 25, 2016

          Appeal from the Order entered on 09/28/2012 in the Court of Common Pleas, Criminal Division of Philadelphia County at No. CP-51-CR-0823621-1984, granting a Stay of Execution



         The Commonwealth appeals from the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County granting the petition for relief filed by Appellee, Terrence Williams ("Williams") pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act, 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 9541-46 ("PCRA"). Because the certified record in this case amply supports the lower court's findings that the Commonwealth willfully suppressed material exculpatory evidence, and that this suppression of evidence prejudiced Williams during the penalty phase of his trial, we affirm the PCRA court's determination that Williams' PCRA petition successfully asserted a claim under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). We further affirm the PCRA court's decision to award Williams a new penalty phase trial.

         In connection with a prior appeal, this Court offered the following brief summary of the facts underlying Williams' convictions of first degree murder, robbery and criminal conspiracy:

On June 11, 1984, [Williams] and Marc Draper lost their money gambling on a street corner. [Williams] left to get money from the victim, Amos Norwood, and returned with $10. Later, Norwood drove up to the two. [Williams] told Draper they were going to take some money from Norwood, and the three men left in Norwood's car. [Williams] directed Norwood to a secluded area where he and Draper forced Norwood out of the car, bound and gagged him, and then took money and other items from him. [Williams], with a tire iron, and Draper, with a wrench, beat Norwood to death and fled. Later that night, [Williams] returned and burned the body.

Commonwealth v. Williams, 863 A.2d 505, 509 (Pa. 2004).

         At trial in 1986, the Commonwealth offered the testimony of Mamie Norwood, the decedent's wife, and Reverend Charles Poindexter, the decedent's pastor, both of whom reviewed for the jury Amos Norwood's work with the youth in the church. N.T., 1/14/1986, at 60, 157-58, 140-41, 166-68, 172-74.[1] Based in part on this testimony, in her closing argument in the penalty phase, the prosecutor, Andrea Foulkes, argued to the jury that Norwood was a "kind" and "innocent" man who had done nothing more than offer Williams a ride home, and that Williams had brutally killed him just get a small amount of money and two credit cards. N.T., 2/3/1986, at 1873-76. At the time Prosecutor Foulkes made this argument, she knew that the Commonwealth's files contained multiple documents, some in her own handwriting, demonstrating that Amos Norwood was neither kind nor innocent, and that he was in fact a sexual abuser of young adolescents, perhaps including Williams. Without this information, which was not provided to defense counsel as required by Brady, the jury returned a death sentence.

         This Court affirmed the judgment of sentence. Commonwealth v Williams, 570 A.2d 75 (Pa. 1990). On March 9, 2012, Williams filed his fourth PCRA petition, in which he alleged, based in part upon affidavits signed by Marc Draper, that, inter alia, (1) his trial counsel was ineffective for not introducing mitigating evidence at the penalty phase of his trial, and (2) the Commonwealth had suppressed evidence of statements made to Draper at the time of trial and promises made to him to induce his cooperation during trial. Judge Teresa Sarmina of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County ordered the Commonwealth to produce various discovery materials, including police homicide files for Williams' two murder convictions (Norwood and Herbert Hamilton) and all reports or notes relating to Draper or Norwood's sexual relationships with Williams or other children under the age of eighteen. On September 28, 2012, Judge Sarmina granted Williams' PCRA petition, vacated his death sentence and granted him a new penalty phase trial. This Court, by opinion dated December 15, 2014, vacated Judge Sarmina's order, dismissed the PCRA petition, and reinstated the death penalty. Commonwealth v. Williams, 105 A.3d 1234 (Pa. 2014). The United States Supreme Court, by opinion dated June 9, 2016, vacated our decision and remanded it back to this Court for further proceedings. Williams v. Pennsylvania, 135 S.Ct. 1899 (2016).

          In her written opinion, Judge Sarmina issued a lengthy opinion that included numerous findings of fact, with credibility determinations based upon her observation of the two witnesses appearing at a September 2012 evidentiary hearing -- Prosecutor Foulkes and witness Marc Draper. As this Court has repeatedly held, the findings of a PCRA court are entitled to "great deference":

The findings of a post-conviction court, which hears evidence and passes on the credibility of witnesses, should be given great deference. We will not disturb the findings of the PCRA court if they are supported by the record, even where the record could support a contrary holding. Commonwealth v. Sullivan, 371 A.2d 468, 476 (Pa. 1977). This Court's scope of review is limited to the findings of the PCRA court and the evidence on the record of the PCRA court's hearing, viewed in the light most favorable to the prevailing party. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Meadius, 870 A.2d 802, 805 (Pa. 2005).

Commonwealth v. Jones, 912 A.2d 268, 293 (Pa. 2006).

         Based upon her exhaustive review of the evidence in the record, Judge Sarmina concluded that:

[T]he Commonwealth suppressed multiple pieces of evidence, all of which shared a common feature: each strengthened the inference that Amos Norwood was sexually involved with boys around [Williams'] age at the time of his murder. The Commonwealth withheld one such statement entirely and turned over to the defense two "sanitized" statements… . [T]he government interfered with [Williams'] ability to present the claim that his due process right to a fair trial had been violated. This claim has not been waived, nor previously litigated, as it is based on information discovered in September 2012. The suppression of this evidence, which could have been used to develop and pursue an alternate theory at the penalty phase, undermines confidence in the jury's death sentence, thereby constituting a meritorious claim of a constitutional violation under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963) and Cone v. Bell, 556 U.S. 449 (2009).

PCRA Court Opinion, 11/27/2012, at 12-13 (footnotes omitted).

         Judge Sarmina determined that the Commonwealth's decision to "sanitize" the witness statements of both Mamie Norwood and Reverend Poindexter interfered with Williams' ability to state a Brady claim until 2012:

By scrubbing these statements of references to Mr. Norwood's sexual improprieties and then providing "clean" versions [to the defense and courts], the government created the false impression that [Williams] was given the full account of what these witnesses stated. That false impression hobbled [Williams'] ability to discover or develop a Brady claim rooted in information removed from the scrubbed statements. That false impression was maintained by the Commonwealth until the original statements were found [in September 2012] in the government's files and some in the very handwriting of the trial prosecutor ... . [T]hroughout the litigation of this case, the government has disputed the existence of information in their files about Amos Norwood's homosexual ephebophilia, [2] thus further interfering with [Williams] learning the facts that form the basis of the instant Brady claim.

Id. at 15.

         Judge Sarmina concluded that Prosecutor Foulkes' actions were intentional and specifically designed to secure the death penalty she had failed to obtain in a prior death penalty case against Williams:

In the Herbert Hamilton case ... Ms. Foulkes aggressively sought a first degree murder conviction and imposition of the death penalty ... . [T]he third degree verdict in the Hamilton case colored Ms. Foulkes' decisions when she prosecuted appellee for the murder of Amos Norwood. First, Ms. Foulkes identified what she believed to be the reason that the jury returned a "compromised" [third degree] verdict. And then she attempted to eliminate evidence which caused the "compromised" verdict from being presented to the [Norwood] jury. ... The "sexual overtones and relationships, " which she credited with leading the [Hamilton] jury to reach a compromise verdict, revolved around the fact that a middle-aged man may have been paying [Williams], still in his teens, for sex.
Ms. Foulkes admitted to this [c]ourt that her knowledge of [Williams'] sexual past created an obvious implication that his relationship with Amos Norwood was substantially similar to his relationship with Herbert Hamilton .... But Ms. Foulkes made certain that the jury did not see that sexual connection. When confronted about the existence of evidence supporting her own suspicion that Mr. Norwood had been sexually inappropriate with [Williams] at the PCRA hearing before this [c]ourt, Ms. Foulkes grossly misrepresented the evidence in the government's files.

PCRA Court Opinion, 11/27/2012, Appendix at 2-5.

         Judge Sarmina found, as a matter of fact, that Prosecutor Foukles' actions created an important difference in the Hamilton and Norwood trials that contributed to the death sentence in the latter case:

The major difference between the Hamilton and Norwood cases is that evidence of a sexual relationship between the middle-aged victim and [Williams] was presented to the jury in the first, but not in the second. The [c]ourt is quite mindful that Ms. Foulkes had no duty to do the defense's job for them, and she had the right to present a different theory of the case that focused on a robbery of the victim and not on a relationship that existed or might have existed between the victim and appellee. However, she did have a duty to provide the defense with that evidence, because it was exculpatory and "material." The fact that a portion of Ms. Foulkes' penalty phase closing argument -- the culmination of prosecuting [Williams] for both the Hamilton and Norwood murders -- focused on an aspect of the evidence that could have been rebutted by the withheld information more than suggests that Ms. Foulkes was aware of the significance of what was brushed under the rug. This [c]ourt concluded that intentionally rooting that evidence out of the Norwood case in order to secure a death penalty sentence amounted to "gamesmanship." Id. at 7-8.

         The Commonwealth's efforts to hide evidence of Amos Norwood's homosexual ephebophilia did not end with the 1986 trial. In a 1998 PCRA petition, Williams asserted a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based upon the failure of trial counsel to introduce evidence of his sexual abuse as a child. Two witnesses, Donald Fisher and James Villarreal, attempted to offer testimony that Norwood had a reputation for sexually molesting young boys. N.T., 4/13/1998, at 602; N.T., 4/8/1998, at 225-32. The PCRA court interrupted and specifically asked counsel for the Commonwealth if there was any evidence regarding Norwood's molestation of young boys. N.T., 4/8/1998, at 237. Again, despite significant evidence in the Commonwealth's own files to the contrary, counsel for the Commonwealth advised the PCRA court that, other than Draper's trial testimony regarding the suggestion that he and Williams could extort money from Norwood, no such evidence existed.[3] Id. As a result of this false representation by counsel for the Commonwealth, the PCRA court indicated that it would not consider the testimony of Fisher or Villarreal because it lacked any corroborating detail. N.T., 4/13/1998, at 602 ("I will not consider it as a fact unless … [t]here would have to be evidence of it and, in other words, what was seen, when it was seen, who was present, who was involved. A statement by any witness of this nature doesn't have much credibility or impact … ."). In its subsequent opinion denying Williams' PCRA claim, the PCRA court did not even mention Fisher's or Villarreal's testimony[4] and, clearly agreeing with the Commonwealth's attacks on the credibility of any evidence suggesting a sexual component to Norwood's murder, discounted Williams' mental health testimony. PCRA Court Opinion, 1/13/1999, at 14-15.

         Judge Sarmina made the following findings of fact regarding the 1998 evidentiary hearing:

At the 1998 evidentiary hearing ... the government intervened as [Williams] attempted to put forth evidence that Amos Norwood had been sexually abusive towards young boys, including [Williams] ... [although p]recisely the evidence that [the PCRA court] asked for was sitting in the government's files. Without that evidence, the [PCRA court] forcefully attacked the relevance of testimony proffered by the defense as to any potential sexual impropriety in Norwood's past. Based on the Commonwealth's affirmative misrepresentation that there was nothing else in the case involving Norwood's "homosexuality or violation of young boys, " [the PCRA court] prevented both lay witnesses and expert witnesses from developing that issue.

PCRA Court Opinion, 11/27/2012, at 16-17.

         In subsequent appellate and federal habeas proceedings, the Commonwealth attacked the very suggestion that Norwood had ever molested anyone (including Williams), insisting that it was not supported by any evidence and constituted nothing more than desperate and incredible fabrications to overturn a death penalty. On direct appeal to this Court, the Commonwealth attacked the credibility of the lay and expert testimony, claiming that any suggestion of a sexual relationship between Williams and Norwood was merely "self-serving accounts … made by the defendant, his family and friends, " and that the "conclusions drawn by the defense experts were completely undermined by their unwavering trust in the[se] self-serving ...

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