WASHINGTON (UPI) — Former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille should have recused himself from a death-row appeal from an inmate whose prosecution he oversaw decades prior, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The high court, in a 5-3 vote, ordered a new sentencing hearing for Terrance “Terry” Williams in the 1984 fatal beating of Amos Norwood. Justices said Castille’s “significant, personal involvement” in the case, from the time he was the head litigator to serving as chief justice of the state’s supreme court, which heard the appeal, “presented an unconstitutional risk of bias,” the court said. Justices said Castille’s participation in the death-row appeal violated Williams’ constitutional rights.
“Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias. This risk so endangered the appearance of neutrality that his participation in the case ‘must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented,’ ” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
“Where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level.”
Castille was the district attorney in Philadelphia and signed off on pursuing the death penalty against Williams in the 1986 case. He was one of six state justices who unanimously voted in 2014 to reinstate Williams’ death penalty that had been thrown out in an earlier court proceeding. Castille retired from the bench in 2014.
Castille argued, in his defense, that he had so many death penalty cases as the district attorney, he had little time to focus on one specific case, so he remained unbiased. Supreme Court justices pointed out that Castille, during his campaign for chief justice, was quoted as saying he sent 45 people to death row while district attorney.
“The court will not assume that then-District Attorney Castille treated so major a decision as a perfunctory task requiring little time, judgment, or reflection on his part,” justices said. “Chief Justice Castille’s willingness to take personal responsibility for the death sentences obtained during his tenure as district attorney indicate that, in his own view, he played a meaningful role in those sentencing decisions and considered his involvement to be an important duty of his office.”
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