Board votes to pardon Robert Wideman, the Pittsburgh man profiled in “Brothers and Keepers”
The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons voted unanimously Thursday to recommend clemency for a Pittsburgh man serving a life sentence for second-degree murder in a 1975 case detailed in the award-winning book “Brothers and Keepers.”
The decision to free Robert Wideman, the 68 year-old Homewood native whose life of poverty, crime and drug abuse is detailed in his brother John Edgar Wideman’s book now goes to Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf has previously released eight inmates who were serving life sentences, more than any governor in recent memory.
This case may stand out among many. In a rare turn of events, even the former prosecutor who tried Wideman in 1976 was on hand this week, advocating for his release.
Mark Schwartz, a Bryn Mawr lawyer and Pittsburgh native who has represented Wideman since 1984, said Wideman’s sister and grandson as well as various college students also were on hand for the hearing.
“His sister has offered to welcome him back into her home. The court room erupted when they announced the vote,” Schwartz said.
Wideman was one of three men arrested in a 1975 robbery gone bad that culminated in the shooting death of Nicholas Morena.
Wideman and the gunman in the case were tried separately. Both were convicted of second-degree murder. A third accomplice was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
Wednesday night during an interview at the Camp Hill State Correctional Institution, the Board of Pardons heard from Wideman.
Wideman, who who earned a college degree and became a model inmate during 43 years in prison, has repeatedly lost bids for pardon. Addressing the Board, he once again expressed remorse for his role in the actions that led to Morena’s death and called it “the worst decision of my life.”
“Mercy is something that I pray God will deliver to those whom I’ve hurt with my senseless selfish actions on the night of Oct. 17, 1975, especially Mr. Morena’s mother and family. …May I plead with this body, hopefully for the last time, to see me as I am now and not as some crazy 24 year-old kid who made the greatest mistake a man can make,” Wideman said.
His lengthy statement to the board also detailed his work sponsoring other inmates with Narcotics Anonymous and working with a restorative justice think tank.
The panel consisting of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; Attorney General Josh Shapiro; Harris Gubernick, a corrections expert; Dr. John P. Williams, a psychiatrist; and attorney and victim representative Marsha H. Grayson, reconvened Thursday in Harrisburg and voted to pardon Wideman after a brief hearing.
Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning, who prosecuted Wideman as an assistant district attorney, was the sole witness at the hearing. He urged the board to pardon Wideman. He said he has long opposed the state’s felony murder statute and pointed to an article he penned for the Duquesne Law School Juris magazine in 1977calling its treatment of those not directly responsible for a murder “draconian.”
Under the statute, an accomplice who did not directly participate in a slaying can be found guilty of second-degree murder if he or she is a participant in a felony that results in a murder. A conviction carries a sentence of life without parole.
Manning said he has been informed that Wideman has grown into a model inmate.
“The bottom line is relatively simple: this man has spent 44 years in prison having been convicted second degree murder. Yet, he did not do the act that caused the death of another person. Life without parole is an inappropriate sentence for someone who did not cause the death of another person,” Manning said.
Manning said he has never before advocated for a pardon, nor does he plan to make it a practice. He called life without parole a proper sentence for the triggerman that shot Morena.
But Manning’s letter on behalf of Wideman suggests there may be grounds to pardon others convicted of felony murder under similar circumstances.
“…I urge you to grant him commutation of time served and lifetime parole and in saying so, I ask, as a trial judge who has spent his entire career in criminal justice, that you consider the petitions of all inmates sentenced to life without parole who did not commit any act which directly caused the death of another human being, and consider them for commutation as well. Justice requires it,” Manning wrote.
The judge was the second high-profile figure to step forward for Wideman.
Wideman’s lawyer introduced evidence that noted forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht previously argued that Wideman should have received a new trial because evidence that came to light after his conviction suggested a lack of proper medical treatment, as documented in a civil suit Morena’s family pressed against the now defunct St. Joseph’s Hospital, contributed to his death.
Based on that finding, Allegheny County Judge James McGregor granted Wideman a new trial in 1999. But the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned McGregor’s order when Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. filed an appeal opposing it.
Both Zappala and Morena’s family members opposed Wideman’s latest bid for pardon.
Wideman learned of the Board’s decision to recommend clemency in a phone call with his lawyer Thursday evening.
“ He was overcome with gratitude towards the Board,” Schwartz said.
Now the waiting begins.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .