New Trial Is Ordered In a Noted '75 Killing
February 9, 1999
By William Glaberson
New York Times
Robert Wideman's part in a 1975 killing might have been forgotten by now except by the family of a 24-year-old man who was shot in the back on a November night.
Instead, the crime became one of the enduring literary images of black America, as a subject of an acclaimed 1984 book, ''Brothers & Keepers,'' by Mr. Wideman's brother, John Edgar Wideman.
One brother, the author, had escaped the ghetto, the other was the street tough who embodied the cycle that claims many young black men. At 25, Robert Wideman was imprisoned for life without parole after an accomplice fired a fatal shot in a failed street swindle.
And Robert Wideman's case is no longer alive only in literature. Surprisingly, it is alive again in the courts, not only reopening old wounds here but also altering a story that has been portrayed around the world as representative of the fate of black men in America.
In November, Judge James R. McGregor of Allegheny County Common Pleas Court ordered a new trial for Mr. Wideman, who has been in prison for 23 years. A second chance is warranted, the judge ruled, because new evidence showed that the victim would not have died if he had received proper medical care after an ambulance took him to a hospital.
''Somewhere I knew,'' Mr. Wideman said in a recent long conversation in the prison visiting room, ''that I was going to make the system see: 'Listen, I am not that bad.' Isn't there a point when you say, Isn't there a second chance?''
Perhaps because John Wideman's writing made Robert Wideman's story seem larger than life, the debate set off by Judge McGregor's ruling has been outsized as well. Angry prosecutors are appealing. Questions about the effect of race and fame on justice have been mixed with fury. And Judge McGregor has said politics had been injected into the case by a heated Democratic primary for district attorney.
The new ruling convinced some that the cycle of hopelessness born on the streets could be broken. Others felt that the decision showed only that infamous people could get special treatment.
''If my son wouldn't have been shot in the back, he wouldn't have needed that medical care,'' said 68-year-old Clara Morena, the mother of Nichola Morena, who died in 1975.
In an interview, the Allegheny County District Attorney, Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said Judge McGregor's ruling was based on ''an absurd theory.'' He said he would fight to see that Mr. Wideman serves his life sentence. '' 'Life' is life,'' he said.
Mr. Wideman was convicted in 1976 of second-degree murder. If he is retried with the new evidence, lawyers say, he could be convicted of a lesser crime. If so, he would have already served more than any sentence he could receive, and he would walk free.
Robert Wideman was one of three armed men who told Mr. Morena and two friends that they had 10 television sets for sale. There were no television sets.
For years, Mr. Wideman's supporters have contended, without solid evidence, that Mr. Morena was a fence for stolen property and was preparing to cheat Mr. Wideman and his friends by taking their television sets and not delivering the $800 that had been promised. Mrs. Morena said she was offended by the accusations.
At the least, the evidencesuggested, Mr. Morena and his associates had reason to suspect that the television sets they had been offered would not have been from a legitimate source. Judge McGregor suggested as much in his order granting Mr. Wideman a new trial. ''On Nov. 15, 1975, six men were committing a felony,'' the judge wrote.
When the groups confronted each other, Mr. Morena ran. According to testimony, Mr. Wideman shouted, ''Get him'' or, ''He's getting away,'' and one of his associates fired.
A painful fact of the latest turn in the case is that the Morena family's lawyers gathered the information that could free Mr. Wideman. In a civil suit in 1981, the family said Mr. Morena died in part because the hospital emergency room to which he had been taken had been inadequately supplied and lacked a chest surgeon.
The suit charged that doctors had not performed standard treatment for chest injuries and that ambulance crews had delayed transferring Mr. Morena to a suitable hospital. Two of the doctors settled the case for $100,000. Years later, said Mark D. Schwartz, one of Robert Wideman's lawyers, Mr. Wideman learned of that civil case. Prosecutors have suggested Mr. Wideman knew of the civil case earlier.
In any event, new lawyers for Mr. Wideman, financed by his brother, investigated the Morenas' suit. Last fall, they presented testimony before Judge McGregor.
One witness who testified for Mr. Wideman was the coroner here, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. ''He would have lived,'' Dr. Wecht said of Mr. Morena in an interview, ''if competent, appropriate, timely medical care had been rendered to him.''
Experts on criminal law say Judge McGregor's ruling relies on established legal principles. But they also say appeals courts resist reopening long-closed cases. One factor courts weigh is whether the delay would unfairly put prosecutors at a disadvantage. In Mr. Wideman's case, the prosecutors say witnesses are gone, memories hazy and files lost.
Mr. Wideman did not pull the trigger but was convicted of murder under rules that say if someone dies in the commission of a felony all participants in the felony can be responsible for murder.
Mr. Wideman's accomplice who fired the fatal shot was also convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence. He is seeking a new trial based on the information Mr. Wideman's lawyers presented. The third accomplice, convicted of a lesser degree of homicide, served 20 years and was freed.
Jurors in any murder case must decide if the defendants' actions caused the death, said David Rudovsky, a criminal law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He said that if a shooting causes injury but something else, like poor medical care, actually caused death, a jury could conclude the defendant did not cause the death.
The prosecutors say they feel that appeals courts will agree that Mr. Wideman should not have a new trial. Death, they say, is a foreseeable consequence of a shot in the back. ''They wanted to murder that man,'' Mr. Zappala said. ''They shot him and left him for dead.''
Mr. Zappala himself has become an issue, as he opposes a retrial while running for his first full term as District Attorney. The son of a prominent Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, he was selected by county judges to fill an unexpired term last fall, despite having little experience in criminal law.
On his first day on the job, Mr. Zappala dismissed his chief homicide prosecutor, W. Christopher Conrad, who had sought the appointment himself.
Mr. Conrad, who is running against Mr. Zappala in a Democratic primary, said he had been ''absolutely shocked'' when Mr. Zappala was named to the post. Mr. Conrad has sat with the Morena family in court while publicly criticizing Mr. Zappala as too lenient in at least one other case.
On Jan. 14, after a series of battles with the District Attorney's office over the Wideman case, Judge McGregor said from the bench that most prosecutors confronted with the new evidence would agree that fairness dictated a new trial.
''The manner in which your office has approached this case has everything in the world to do with the race for District Attorney of Allegheny County,'' said Judge McGregor, a Republican who was once proposed for a Federal judgeship by President Reagan.
''Without Chris Conrad attacking him for being soft on crime,'' the judge said, the case against Mr. Wideman would be closed as a result of a plea deal. Mr. Zappala angered Judge McGregor by blocking an order by the judge that would have freed Mr. Wideman on bail. An appeals court later overturned Judge McGregor's order.
In an interview, Mr. Zappala said he was offended by suggestions that he was making decisions on the case for political reasons. He said the judge had been influenced by the Wideman family's view of the case.
Mr. Wideman, the convict, said his family's fame was ''a blessing and a curse.'' A blessing, he said, because his brother's success as a writer meant he had the means to help him. It is a curse, he added, ''that because of the fame, Zappala feels a need to make a stand.''
Mr. Wideman, the writer, said the case illustrated what he called the bias of the justice system, a theme in many of his books, which describe the toll of life in Pittsburgh's black Homewood section. His brother, he said, had changed in prison, overcoming a drug problem, earning the equivalent of a junior college degree and teaching other inmates. But the prosecutors' resistance to a new trial showed they were unwilling to see him as an individual.
''Ironically,'' John Wideman said in a recent interview in Amherst, Mass., ''here we are a quarter of a century later and we have a situation where Robby Wideman, whoever he is, whatever he has accomplished, is not up in front of the court. What's up in front of the court is a black male who committed a crime.''
Both brothers said they had a special understanding of the loss suffered by Mrs. Morena. Robert Wideman's son was killed in revenge after a Pittsburgh bar fight. John Wideman has a son who is serving 25 years to life for stabbing to death a fellow summer camper when he was a teen-ager.
Robert Wideman, now 48, said he long ago accepted that his own bad choices led him to be there when Mr. Morena was shot. He said he was sorry. But he said he was not a killer.
Photos: John Edgar Wideman, above (George Ruhe for The New York Times), author of ''Brothers & Keepers,'' about his brother, Robert, right (Associated Press), who is serving a life term for murder and is seeking a new trial. Clara Morena, mother of Nichola Morena, holding pictures of her son, who was killed in 1975 by an accomplice of Robert Wideman.