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Robert Wideman deserves a commuted sentence

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

An open letter on behalf of Robert Wideman to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and Gov. Ed Rendell.

Please understand that I don't write letters on behalf of prisoners convicted of murder every day. Like most people, I consider the taking of human life the most repugnant of crimes.

Every murderer's victim leaves behind relationships shattered by what poets have described as the world's oldest sin. Each murder carries with it a legacy of unspeakable presumption. We instinctively recognize that the taking of life, even for a righteous cause, is a step back into the primordial darkness from which we have only recently emerged.

From the moment we learned to sort the bones of friends and enemies into separate piles of acceptable and unacceptable dead, murder has been our constant companion.

In our broken and alienated humanity, we mourn the loss of a loved one by wishing to see all killers suffer. This is what nature demands of us in that circumstance. It's also the flip side of the murderer's presumption. Revenge has no legitimate place in the template of justice, but ordinary folks have grown to expect and demand it over the centuries.

As a Christian, I'm conscious of this cycle of violence and the pathologies it feeds at every level of society. Because of the public's indifference to issues of rehabilitative justice, our prisons have become nothing more than taxpayer-subsidized torture chambers. Because revenge distorts our discourse on justice, mercy is increasingly rare because it is both unpopular and politically risky.

The case of Robert Wideman is especially instructive on this point. Twenty-eight years ago, Wideman, then 24, and two accomplices, Michael Dukes and Cecil Rice, conspired to rob a man to whom they had arranged to sell a truckload of nonexistent stolen televisions. The meeting was at a West End used car lot.

When Nichola "Nickie" Morena and his associates asked to inspect the truck's contents, Michael Dukes leapt from the back with his gun drawn as planned. Dukes fired on the fleeing Morena who was hit in the shoulder and fatally wounded. The men fled the scene of the botched robbery, but were eventually caught and prosecuted.

Dukes and Wideman were convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Rice was convicted of third-degree murder and served a 10- to 20-year sentence.

Robert Wideman has never disputed being an accessory to the crime that ended in Nickie Morena's death. Though he wasn't the shooter, he received a life sentence. He has spent every day of nearly three decades paying dearly for it. While in prison, Wideman's own son was killed. His sorrow over his role in Morena's death was compounded by his grief over his own son's murder.

But instead of sinking into despair, Robert Wideman turned his life around. He got sober and drug free. He tutored inmates in algebra and trigonometry for 15 years. He got a degree in mechanical drafting. While in prison he married a very patient woman. He now lectures troubled young men about the futility of a life of crime.

Cops and prison guards regularly call and write to me insisting that Wideman doesn't belong in prison. They're convinced that he has a useful role to play in society and that his debt to Morena's grieving mother will never be paid while he sits in a prison cell. Though I understand Mrs. Morena's lingering anger, I agree with this assessment that mercy be granted. As agents of justice, it is your responsibility to weigh their competing interests fairly.

I understand that it's easier not to have pity when compassion makes you the bad guy in the eyes of those who've chosen not to care. It's easier to uphold the letter of the law even when doing so ensures that that spirit of the law has been crushed by injustice's cold embrace.

But true justice requires a beating heart, one willing to examine its assumptions in light of changing circumstances and conditions. Those who hold positions of influence in the criminal justice system have the burden of ripping away the veil of hypocrisy and wrath so that the commutation process begins to mean something in Pennsylvania, again. That's why I humbly ask that you review the case of Robert Wideman with hearts and minds wide open.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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