Last winter, after seven unsuccessful appeals to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, Robert Wideman had given up hope of ever leaving the state prison system that had been his home for more than four decades.
On Wednesday, Wideman, who finally was released from prison last week after a final appeal succeeded, just shook his head as he recounted his long journey in an interview with the Tribune-Review.
“I’ve been telling myself I’m the luckiest man alive,” Wideman said. He and his longtime lawyer Mark Schwartz, a Bryn Mawr lawyer and Pittsburgh native, spoke of their efforts in an Uptown office near the Pittsburgh halfway house that will be Wideman’s home for the next year.
Wideman’s youthful life of crime, poverty and drug abuse is chronicled in his brother John Edgar Wideman’s award-winning 1984 book “Brothers and Keepers.”
The 68-year-old Homewood native served nearly 44 years of a life sentence for his role as an accomplice in a 1975 Pittsburgh robbery that culminated in the shooting and death of Nicholas Morena.
The plot called for Wideman and two associates to rob Morena, a car salesman whom they had lured to a meeting with the promise of a truckload of stolen TVs.
Like the gunman who shot Morena as he ran away, Wideman was convicted of second-degree murder and received a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. A third member of the group was convicted of third-degree murder and sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.
In prison, Wideman — known to family and friends as Robbie — matured from the angry, rebellious 24-year-old arrested after fleeing across the country in the wake of the shooting.
The tall, slim man now walks slowly. “I have a steel rod and 12 screws in my back,” he explained. Wincing in pain as he flexed fingers riddled with arthritis, Wideman said the turning point for him was his son Omar’s murder in 1993.
“I decided after my son died that I had to change and do something to help someone. By the grace of God and effort, I just began to change and held on to hope,” he said.
In the years before the state ended an education program for inmates, Wideman earned an associate’s degree in engineering, took courses in computer engineering and instructed his fellow inmates in algebra and trigonometry classes.
He kicked the drug habit that had followed him to prison and became a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor to other inmates trying to get clean. He mentored at-risk youth that local police brought to the prison and helped launch a program with Duquesne University that paired Pittsburgh police officers and police recruits with inmates for a series of face-to-face meetings.
But, when the pardon’s board rejected his appeals for the seventh time last year, Wideman ran out of plans and lost hope.
“I was truly at my wit’s end,” Wideman said.
He said at one point, while in pain from back surgery, he prayed for God to take him.
Schwartz had other ideas.
Gov. Tom Wolf had signed off on pardons for several other inmates who had turned their lives around while serving long sentences for murder.
So, Schwartz began scouring court records to ensure salient details of Wideman’s case were included in a petition for reconsideration.
There was Dr. Cyril Wecht’s testimony that Morena’s death was the result of a hospital error rather than a gunshot wound as well as the hospital’s ultimate decision to settle a lawsuit with the Morena family.
Then there was Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala’s last-minute intervention to halt Wideman’s release on bail two decades earlier after Judge James McGregor had granted him a new trial.
Schwartz insists Zappala overstepped his authority on that count.
Zappala appealed McGregor’s order for a new trial and had it overturned.
Ultimately, Zappala and Morena’s younger sister would once again argue against Wideman’s release when the Pardons Board convened in May.
Wideman said he can’t forget Morena’s sister and the pain she continues to feel.
“I can’t just say that I’m sorry, without it seeming that it’s not enough. I pray for her. She doesn’t have to forgive me. I just pray that she finds some kind of peace,” he said.
And then there was Allegheny County Judge Jeffrey Manning.
Manning, known as a law and order judge, had been a young assistant district attorney when he prosecuted Wideman. As early as 1977 he wrote a law review article decrying as “draconian” the law that called for mandatory life imprisonment without parole for those convicted of second-degree murder even though they were not directly responsible for the death of another person.
Schwartz said as he was preparing Wideman’s appeal for reconsideration early last spring when Manning called and said, “Mark, I think it’s time.”
Manning later joined him at the Pardon Board’s hearing and advocated for Wideman’s release.
This time, the board that had rejected Wideman’s last appeal 4-1, voted 5-0 to recommend him for clemency.