Supreme Court to Address Conflict of Interest in Death Penalty Case

Supreme_Court_of_the_United_StatesOn “Leap Day” this year (February 29, 2016), the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear an important case that could have an impact on the definitions of conflict of interest.

As the Constitution Center reports, the case of Williams v. Pennsylvania will address questions related to whether a state supreme court justice should have recused himself from a case in which he had served in a prior prosecutory role toward the defendant, and whether his declining to do so violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

Back in 1986, Terrance Williams of Philadelphia was convicted of murdering Amos Norwood, and was sentenced to death. At the time, Ron Castille was the Philadelphia district attorney who had pursued the death penalty against Williams, and even when running for re-election, he campaigned on his record of how many criminals (including Williams) he had “sent” to death row.

Fast forward to 2012: by this time, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is considering an appeal of a lower court ruling that Williams should receive a stay of execution and that he should receive a new penalty phase in his murder trial. By now, Ron Castille, the former D.A. who had prosecuted Williams, is a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. Williams’ defense counsel asks Castille to recuse himself from proceedings; Castille declines. The court decides unanimously to overturn the lower court ruling for a new penalty phase for Williams.

Even though Castille’s vote in the deliberations was not a deciding one, Williams’ attorneys are contending that his refusal to recuse himself was a violation of the defendant’s rights under the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing due process) and the Eighth Amendment (protection against “cruel and unusual punishment”). In October 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.

In this case, the Supreme Court will be addressing two key questions pertaining to conflict of interest. First—they will consider whether Castille’s prior history with the defendant as a prosecutor (and his open support of the death penalty against him) should have disqualified him from participation in the appeals process, and whether his refusal to recuse himself violated Williams’ rights under the law. Second—they will consider the broader question as to whether it violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments for any judge with a possible bias to participate in a multimember tribunal considering capital punishment, regardless of whether that jurist casts the deciding vote.

Depending on the Supreme Court’s decision, the ramifications of this case could be far-reaching, prompting states to consider new rules as to how judges are qualified preside or participate in capital punishment cases. This will be a case to watch with interest.