PHILADELPHIA — A Pennsylvania judge has granted a stay of execution and a new sentencing hearing to a convicted murderer due to die by lethal injection Wednesday.
The scheduled execution of Terrance Williams, 46, had prompted pleas for clemency from thousands of people who argued that he should be spared because he had been sexually abused by the man he killed.
Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas ruled Friday that Williams should be spared because she said prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense showing that Williams’s victim, Amos Norwood, had relationships with minors, including Williams, who was 18 at the time of the murder.
Norwood was 56 when he was beaten to death in 1984.
The judge ruled that evidence concerning the relationships could have led the jury at Williams’s 1986 trial to vote for a penalty other than death.
Defense lawyers contended that newly discovered evidence of Norwood’s sexual activities supported their claim that Williams killed him because Norwood had abused him from the age of 13, and not because of a robbery, as prosecutors argued at the trial.
The new evidence — which was given to defense lawyers for the first time last weekend after 28 years in police files — was sufficient to demand a stay and a new sentencing but not a new trial, the judge said.
“This court is granting a stay of execution and this court is granting a new penalty phase,’’ the judge said in her statement from the bench.
Unless the state Supreme Court overturns Sarmina’s stay of execution before Wednesday, Williams will not be put to death that day, said Ronald Eisenberg, an assistant district attorney.
If the execution is carried out, it would be Pennsylvania’s first in 13 years, and the first since 1962 of an inmate who did not choose to die.
The Philadelphia district attorney, R. Seth Williams, said he would immediately appeal the ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
He attacked the decision as unjust, and accused Sarmina of overlooking the fact that Williams never testified that he was abused.
The district attorney ridiculed the judge’s statement that prosecutors suppressed evidence about Norwood’s sexual activities.
“How in the world could the prosecutor have ‘suppressed’ information that was in the defendant’s own head?’’ Williams said at a news conference.
Shawn Nolan, a lawyer for Williams, expressed confidence the state Supreme Court would uphold Sarmina’s ruling.
“We do not believe that the court will tolerate the prosecutor’s actions in this case, especially when life or death are at issue,’’ Nolan said.
In addition to Williams’s assertions that he was sexually abused, defense lawyers contend that Andrea Foulkes, who prosecuted the case in 1986, did not inform the jury that she had promised Williams’s alleged accomplice that she would give him recommendation to state parole officials if he pleaded guilty and testified that the killing occurred during a robbery.
The accomplice was sentenced to a life prison term without parole.