Nearly two dozen Pennsylvania rabbis signed on to a letter asking Gov. Tom Corbett and the State Board of Pardons to offer clemency to a Mount Airy man sentenced to die Oct. 3 by lethal injection.
Terrance Williams, 46, was convicted in a 1986 jury trial for the June 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, also of Mount Airy. Williams lured Norwood to a cemetery, beat him to death and set his body on fire. He was also convicted in the 1984 slaying of 50-year-old Herbert Hamilton.
Last week, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted 3 to 2 in favor of commuting the death penalty and instituting a life sentence. But the vote needed to be unanimous in order to overturn the sentence, leaving Williams’ team few remaining legal options.
The letter signed by Pennsylvania clergy members — including 13 rabbis from the Philadelphia area — asserts that the case is not as straightforward as it might seem and includes information that did not come out at the initial trial.
The letter contains the assertion that Norwood “had been raping Terrance and exploiting him since he was 13 years old. This is a significant fact that calls out for a halt to the pursuit of an execution in this case.”
In more than 25 years as a death row inmate, the letter says, Williams “has matured and has been able to experience the love of God and maintain positive relationships with his surviving family and many friends.” As faith leaders, it continues, “we believe that our justice system should be directed toward the improvement of life, not its destruction.”
Judaism’s stance regarding capital punishment is a complex one. The Torah offers many examples of sins that are punishable by death. But in interpreting the holy text, the ancient rabbis devised a system that required such high standards of evidence in order to carry out the death penalty that it became virtually impossible to impose capital punishment in Jewish courts.
Maria Pulzetti, who is part of Williams’ legal team, is a member of Germantown Jewish Centre and encouraged the synagogue’s rabbis, Adam Zeff and Annie Lewis, to sign the letter. Zeff, senior rabbi, spoke about the issue at Rosh Hashanah services.
Other pulpit rabbis in the area who signed the letter were: Peter Riegler of Temple Sholom of Broomall, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann of Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, Linda Holtzman of Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough and Kevin Kleinman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
The full list of signatories can be found at www.terrywilliamsclemency.com/Clergy_Ltr.pdf.