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In high-profile case, Pittsburgh man takes key step toward release from prison

Robert Wideman.jpg

Robert Wideman, right, with his sister Laticia El and his niece, who has since passed away. (Courtesy of Laticia El)

A Pittsburgh man whose case garnered national attention in the 1980s and ’90s took a significant step toward freedom on Thursday. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted unanimously to recommend that Gov. Tom Wolf reduce Robert Wideman’s life sentence.

It is considered all but certain that Wolf will grant the relief in light of that recommendation. 

Wideman was convicted of second-degree murder in 1976, after serving as an accomplice to a fatal robbery the year before. His story was at the center of the acclaimed 1984 book “Brothers and Keepers,” written by his older brother, Pittsburgh novelist John Edgar Wideman.

The memoir provides a window into the brutal conditions the younger Wideman faced in prison. The book also recounts how the cycle of drug-use, crime and poverty came to define the Homewood native’s life before he went to prison.

On Thursday, the board took testimony in a hearing that lasted about 15 minutes. Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey Manning spoke on Wideman’s behalf. The judge originally prosecuted Wideman as an assistant district attorney, but has been highly critical of the law under which Wideman was convicted.

“I’ve taken the position for a long time that the ‘felony-murder’ rule does not apply when you would expect it to apply. It eliminates the court’s ability to properly sentence,” Manning told the board, which is chaired by Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. (The panel also consists of state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, corrections expert Harris Gubernick, psychiatrist John Williams and victim representative Marsha Grayson.)

Manning noted that under the felony-murder doctrine, perpetrators are convicted of murder if they participate in a felony, such as robbery, that results in death. The rule applies regardless of whether the participant committed the killing himself.

In Wideman’s case, one of his two accomplices was instead convicted of third-degree murder, and was released after serving a 10-to-20-year term.

Manning cited that disparity as evidence that the felony-murder rule is “unjust.”

The evening before Thursday’s hearing, the board spoke with Wideman himself at the state prison in Camp Hill. Fetterman said the lengthy conversation had been “very productive,” and had provided the board with “a lot of the important information” in the case.

In a statement submitted before the hearing, Wideman said his crime was “the worst decision of my life.” He expressed remorse for his “senseless act, a selfish greedy act,” and said he has since reformed himself in prison. For example, he wrote, he had completed an associates degree and become a mentor to other inmates who struggle with drug abuse.

But at the hearing, the sister of the man who died in the 1975 robbery urged the board not to recommend him for commutation.

“My family will forever be serving a life sentence mourning my brother’s death. We will never be paroled,” she said.

Wideman was charged with murder after participating in a 1975 robbery that resulted in the shooting death of car salesman Nichola Morena. Even though Wideman did not fire any shots, the “felony-murder” doctrine treats accomplices to a felony that causes death as killers themselves.

That crime carries a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole, meaning commutation is the only means by which Wideman could win release.

Wideman applied for, and was denied, commutation as early as 1984. His latest application was rejected last summer in a 4-1 vote, according to Wideman’s attorney, Mark Schwartz. But the pardons board unanimously agreed earlier this year to reconsider.

Schwartz had requested the rehearing since, he said, the panel had not heard evidence about a wrongful-death lawsuit Morena’s family brought against a local hospital after Wideman’s trial.

Morena had been shot in the shoulder, and bled to death at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital in the South Side.  His family accused medical staff of not providing the treatment necessary to save his life, and the case settled for $100,000 in 1983. Then-Allegheny County coroner Cyril Wecht testified in the civil suit that medical negligence, not the gunshot wound itself, directly caused Morena’s death.

“I felt that there was an important piece that was missing from the record in front of the pardon board,” Schwartz said before Thursday’s hearing.

That information was not known at the time of Wideman’s trial. A judge subsequently ordered a retrial despite vigorous opposition from prosecutors, who argued that, if Morena hadn’t been shot, he never would have ended up in the hospital in the first place. And, they said it would be unfair to force the government to relitigate a decades-old case.

The prosecutors ultimately prevailed when a state appeals court overturned the order for a new trial.

Gov. Wolf will ultimately decide whether to grant commutation after today’s action, but the recommendation itself is part of a recent break from long-term trends. Between 2003 and 2018, the board typically recommended no more than one life-sentence commutation a year, according to state data. But in just the last month, Wolf has commuted three life sentences on the board’s recommendation. 

After the hearing, Schwartz said he was waiting for a call from Wideman, so he could tell him about the board’s ruling.

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