Williams feared he'd be shipped across the state to be executed on Wednesday, the first person sent to the death chamber in Pennsylvania since 1999. But the call never came. Instead, his defense lawyers phoned him that afternoon to say the state Supreme Court had in effect halted the execution.
A state judge last week granted a stay of execution, and the court said it wouldn't overturn her decision before Williams' death warrant expired at midnight. The court plans to review Williams' case over time.
"Today was a very scary day for Terry because the stay could have been lifted, and he could have been taken to Rockview and executed," defense lawyer Shawn Nolan said. "He's very relieved."
Williams, of Philadelphia, admits killing two men in his teens, but now contends both men were sexually abusing him.
Five days before his execution, a state judge found that prosecutors withheld evidence from Williams' capital murder trial in 1986, including evidence the victim in that case was molesting teen boys. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina tossed out Williams' death sentence on Friday but upheld his first-degree murder conviction.
If her ruling stands, a new jury could again condemn Williams to death, or sentence him to life without parole.
Williams, 46, has been on death row for nearly three decades. He would have been the first person executed in Pennsylvania in 50 years who had not given up his appeals.
District Attorney Seth Williams, no relation to the defendant, insists Terry Williams is the rare defendant deserving of the death penalty, and prosecutors complained in a response Wednesday that his appeals have tied up the court system long enough.
"I continue to believe that this defendant received an appropriate sentence, and that his new claims are not true," Seth Williams said after Wednesday's ruling. "The Supreme Court will now have the time to look at all the facts."
Williams was 17 when he fatally stabbed a 50-year-old high school sports booster during a sex-linked argument at the man's apartment. He had turned 18 when he and a friend fatally beat the 56-year-old church deacon, Amos Norwood, in a cemetery five months later.
Williams, a gifted quarterback who led his high school to a city title, was having sex with homosexual men throughout his teens in exchange for money, gifts and clothes. He says Norwood had been sexually abusing him since he was 13. The jury heard only that Norwood was killed in a robbery. Sarmina relied on original police files she unearthed in ruling Friday that prosecutors had "sanitized" the real story, perhaps affecting the jury's decision to sentence Williams to death.
The Supreme Court will now ask for briefs as prosecutors appeal her finding.
Only three people have been executed in Pennsylvania since the U.S. Supreme Court restored the death penalty in 1976.
Gary Heidnik was executed in 1999 for the murders of two women he had imprisoned in his Philadelphia home. The others were both executed in 1995: Leon Moser for the 1985 murders of his wife and two daughters in suburban Philadelphia; and Keith Zettlemoyer for the 1980 slaying of a friend who planned to testify against him in a robbery trial.
Associated Press writer Peter Jackson contributed to this report from Harrisburg, Pa.