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Keeping Wideman in jail compounds tragedy

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Robert Wideman's complicity in the death of Nichola "Nickie" Morena 26 years ago has never been in doubt. Morena, a 24-year-old used car salesman, was shot in the back by Michael Dukes, Wideman's partner and the admitted triggerman.

Dukes and Wideman were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Their accomplice, Cecil Rice, was convicted of third-degree murder. After serving a 10- to 20-year sentence, Rice is now a free man.

The confrontation between the men on Nov. 15, 1975, at Morena's West End car lot, has been described by the defendants as a "fencing deal" gone sour. Morena's family insisted it was a calculated murder of a solid citizen robbed of $800 as he lay dying. Three juries agreed and convicted Wideman and his co-defendants.

Under Pennsylvania law, Wideman was given the same sentence as the shooter because, at the very least, he was a guilty bystander who participated in a crime leading to Morena's death.

The roles of two other men on the scene -- acquaintances of Morena's -- have been in dispute for more than two decades. In the first line of a strongly worded court order granting Wideman's request for a new trial three years ago, Senior Common Pleas Judge James R. McGregor referred to six men "committing a felony" on Nov. 15, 1975. McGregor included Morena among those six men.

In 1981, Morena's family won a malpractice suit against the hospital that treated Nickie Morena's gunshot wound. But Wideman's lawyers didn't learn of the civil suit until 1995.

The family, which eventually settled out of court with two doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital on the South Side for $100,000, was able to prove that improper medical treatment was a significant factor in Morena's death.

Though intrigued by Wideman's argument that evidence the Morenas gathered during their civil suit could also help him, Judge McGregor was persuaded by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht's testimony. Dr. Wecht testified that in 1975, his office presented an "incomplete" coroner's report to all three juries because St. Joseph's contribution to Morena's death wasn't known at the time.

In a hearing before Judge McGregor three years ago this week, Dr. Wecht argued that if the juries had heard testimony that Morena's wounds were originally nonfatal, the defendants could've been convicted of homicide and sentenced to a lesser degree.

It was a novel argument, and Wideman seized on it. If he had been successful in arguing this point in a new trial, he hoped to be resentenced and possibly released for time already served.

Now 50, Wideman is an unlikely recidivist. He's used his time in prison to kick drugs, become a model prisoner and secure a college education. His brother, the renowned author John Edgar Wideman, has campaigned tirelessly on his behalf.

While in prison, Wideman learned of the death of his own son, murdered on the streets of Pittsburgh after a bar fight. More than he'd like to, Wideman understands all too well the Morena family's pain and how much he's contributed to it.

But even as Wideman's opportunity for a limited kind of "redemption" loomed, his retrial became an issue in the race for Allegheny County District Attorney. Stephen Zappala Jr., the son of a prominent Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, handily defeated his more experienced opponent in the Democratic primary by countering the charge that he was "soft on crime."

Both Zappala and his opponent, former deputy district attorney Christopher Conrad, agreed on one thing: Wideman shouldn't receive a second trial. If he got out at age 100, it would've been too soon for the Morenas.

Zappala quickly challenged the judge's order that Wideman be allowed to make bail. The Superior Court followed up by throwing out Judge McGregor's order. When Wideman appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it refused to overturn the Superior Court's decision, effectively dooming his best chance at freedom.

It can't be in society's interests to allow men like Wideman to linger in prison one day longer than absolutely necessary. As much as I sympathize with the Morena family's loss, Robby Wideman's case is tragic for reasons I'll explore in my next column.

Tony Norman's e-mail address is: tnorman@post-gazette.com

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