Death Penalty Update: “No man can be a judge in his own case”- wrote Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a decision on a death penalty case yesterday. In Williams v. Pennsylvania, the US Supreme Court decided that a judge who was involved in the prosecution could not thereafter sit as a state Supreme Court Justice in the same case years later.
Mr. Williams was charged with first-degree murder in 1986, in Philadelphia. The District Attorney authorized his office to pursue the death penalty. Some 26 years later, that District Attorney was sitting on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania as Chief Justice, when the case came before that court on appeal following the grant of a new sentencing hearing by a lower court.
Defense attorneys requested that then Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille recuse himself from the decision of the case, but he refused. When the state court issued its ruling, Justice Castille voted to affirm the sentence. Two weeks later, Castille resigned from the court.
On appeal to the United States Supreme Court, the issue was whether Mr. Williams’ due process rights were violated when one of the judges deciding his fate had been the chief prosecutor and authorized the decision to seek the death penalty. In remanding the case, the Supreme Court found that the likelihood of bias as a result of the former prosecutor’s role was “too high to be constitutionally tolerable”.
In Pennsylvania, defense attorneys in death penalty cases must be certified under Pa.R.Crim.Pro. 801, which requires experience trying felony cases before juries and continuing legal education on capital cases. Attorney Helen Stolinas of The Mazza Law Group, PC is certified, and has experience trying murder cases and other felonies. If you or a loved one is facing a murder charge or other serious criminal matter, call for a consultation today.