Supreme Court to examine judge's role in Pennsylvania death penalty case
Supreme Court (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday said it would hear an appeal by a Pennsylvania death row inmate who contends that a state judge who upheld his murder conviction should have stepped aside because of his prior role as a prosecutor in the case.

Terrance Williams, convicted of the 1984 bludgeoning murder of a man in Philadelphia, says former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself from hearing Williams' appeal as a member of the state Supreme Court because he had served as the local District Attorney at the time of the conviction.

Castille, who recently retired from the bench, won election to the state's high court in 1993. Williams' lawyers said in court papers that Castille ran a tough-on-crime campaign in which he "emphasized his pursuit of capital punishment."

The case focuses on a December 2014 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that upheld Williams' conviction and sentence. Castille had denied a recusal motion filed by Williams and was in the majority in the unanimous decision.

Williams had, among other things, introduced new evidence that he had been sexually abused by the victim.

Williams, a former star high school quarterback, was sentenced to death in 1986 for killing a 56-year-old man two years earlier, when Williams was 18. He was convicted of bludgeoning the man and later setting the body on fire. Prosecutors said the killing was tied to a robbery.

Williams had been scheduled to be executed in March but Governor Tom Wolf in February declared a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania to reassess the effectiveness of capital punishment.

The dispute has echoes of a 2009 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that a West Virginia appeals court judge should have recused himself in a case in which one of the parties had contributed $3 million to his election campaign.

In a data analysis last month, Reuters found a strong correlation between the results in death penalty cases and the way each state chooses its justices.

In states like Pennsylvania where high court judges are directly elected, justices rejected the death sentence in 11 percent of appeals compared to a 26 percent reversal rate in states where justices are appointed, Reuters found.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments and decide the case in its new term, which begins on Monday and ends in June.

The case is Williams v. Pennsylvania, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 15-5040.

(Additional reporting by Dan Levine in San Francisco; Editing by Will Dunham)