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ABA asks high court to order review of death sentence, citing conflict of state chief justice

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ABA asks high court to order review of death sentence, citing conflict of state chief justice

By John Glynn

CHICAGO, Dec. 7, 2015 — The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, urging the justices to set aside a Pennsylvania man’s death sentence and order a new penalty trial because the state’s chief justice “disregarded uniform ethics rules” in hearing an appeal in the case.

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In appealing a 1986 capital murder conviction, Terrance Williams asked that then Chief Justice Ronald Castille recuse himself from hearing his appeal because Castille had previously served as the head district attorney who reviewed the facts in Williams’ case and personally authorized his capital prosecution. Castille refused the request and was one of five justices who unanimously overturned a lower court decision giving Williams a new penalty phase in his murder trial.

The ABA brief contends that Castille, who campaigned years earlier for the state high court citing the 45 defendants — including Williams — he had sent to death row as a chief prosecutor, should have recused himself from the case based on longstanding rules governing judicial recusal codified in the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct, which is based upon ABA model rules.

The brief noted that the ethics codes bar a judge from “participating in a case in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” It explained that Castille, who retired earlier this year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, had reviewed some of the Williams case’s facts, had personally authorized his capital prosecution and had supervised the trial prosecutors whose misconduct was the subject of the appeal.

“The ABA urges this court to conclude that due process relief should be provided in these rare-but-egregious circumstances: where a justice of a state supreme court has disregarded uniform ethics rules and due process protections by refusing to recuse himself from a capital defendant’s collateral appeal even though the justice (as the former district attorney) had personally authorized the capital prosecution and the appeal challenged the misconduct of prosecutors under the district attorney’s managerial responsibility,” the ABA brief said.

The ABA's amicus brief for Terrance Williams v. Pennsylvania is available here.

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