Terrance Williams was sentenced to death for killing Amos Norwood with a tire iron at age 18, months after killing another man. He's exhausted his appeals, which reached a federal appeals court.
But his lawyers now say there's new evidence a co-defendant involved in the 1984 killing can corroborate his abuse claims. They say the jury might have spared Williams the death penalty had that come out.
Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said she needs more than the co-defendant's simple statement to reopen the case. She wants to know how the co-defendant would have known about the abuse. However, she agreed the jury might have been interested in the claim.
Sarmina said she has handled three cases that ended with a death sentence.
"Where the victim is not a sympathetic victim, a jury is much less likely to come back with a sentence of death," Sarmina said.
Philadelphia prosecutors oppose the request for a new evidence hearing. They argue that Williams, now 46, is simply trying to push back his execution date.
Pennsylvania has not put anyone to death since 1999 and has not executed anyone fighting execution since 1962, according to Williams' public defenders, Shawn Nolan and William Nolas. They are expected to appeal to a higher court if Sarmina denies their motion for a stay.
Prosecutors question Williams' myriad claims of childhood sexual abuse by various people, along with recent defense efforts to compare him to the victims of convicted retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and predator-priests. Sarmina recently presided over a landmark abuse case involving the Roman Catholic church.
"That effort to piggyback on these sorry events is, I think, quite cynical," Assistant District Attorney Ronald Eisenberg argued Monday. "This situation is nothing like the altar boys and other victims of sexual abuse here and in State College."
Williams, who is on death row in western Pennsylvania, attended the court session. He wore a navy suit and smiled at a large group of family members in the courtroom, including his elderly mother.
Norwood's widow, Mamie, has forgiven Williams but did not attend the hearing.
Williams is also serving a 27-year sentence for the earlier killing, which took place when he was 17.