PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Pennsylvania death row inmate has a simple premise for the U.S. Supreme Court: The same person shouldn't be both his prosecutor and his judge.
Yet Terrance Williams says that's exactly what happened when Philadelphia District Attorney Ronald Castille signed off on Williams' death penalty prosecution in 1986 and, as chief justice of the State Supreme Court nearly 29 years later, participated in the unanimous vote that reinstated Williams' death sentence.
Castille's actions as a judge are before the high court today.
Williams' lawyer says Castille had a clear conflict of interest and should have stepped aside from hearing the case, especially because a lower court judge found that prosecutors working for Castille hid evidence in Williams' murder trial.
"The issue being raised is prosecutorial misconduct, in his office, at the time he was the boss," said Shawn Nolan, who handles death penalty appeals in the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. "It's just not right."
Castille, now retired, refused defense requests to withdraw from the case.
"In Pennsylvania, we leave it up to the judge's personal conscience," he said Friday. "I've always been confident that I can be fair and impartial."
A judge's decision about sitting out a case is a sensitive subject for the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices decide for themselves when they should not participate.
In its last major case about judicial ethics, the high court was divided 5-4 in 2009 in ruling that elected judges must step aside from cases when large campaign contributions from interested parties create the appearance of bias.
Philadelphia prosecutors argue that Castille played only a fleeting part in Williams' prosecution, limited to signing off on the decision to seek the death penalty. Williams, who had been a star high school quarterback, was accused of killing a church deacon, Amos Norwood, 56. He already had been convicted of killing a high school booster, Herbert Hamilton, 50, for which he was sentenced to up to 27 years in prison.
Williams' case came before the State Supreme Court after a lower court threw out his death sentence in 2012, five days before he was to be executed.