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Convicted killer makes a novel appeal

Wednesday, October 28, 1998

By John M.R. Bull, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Robert Wideman, who is serving a life sentence for the 1975 killing of a used car lot owner, says he has discovered new evidence and wants a new trial.

  Robert Wideman in Judge James McGregor's courtroom. (Andy Starnes - Post-Gazette)

Wideman, convicted two decades ago of the shooting death in Overbrook of Nicholas Morena, says doctors could have saved Morena's life but were negligent.

Wideman is raising an interesting legal argument: Whether he was wrongly convicted when the man who died would have lived if he had received proper treatment from doctors.

Prosecutor Rebecca Spangler says the argument is irrelevant.

If Morena hadn't been shot, he wouldn't have died, regardless of what doctors did or did not do, she said yesterday as Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge James McGregor began a hearing on Wideman's post-conviction appeal.

She noted that a jury had decided that Wideman, now 47, was robbing Morena when he was shot, which she said meets the definition of second-degree murder. That was the jury's verdict, and Wideman was sentenced to a mandatory term of life in prison.

"It seems pretty clear," she said.

McGregor listened to five hours of testimony yesterday in a hearing that will continue today.

Yesterday's testimony was detailed and most of it came from experts hired on Wideman's behalf who described what they believed doctors should have done to save Morena.

The two medical experts testified that doctors at the former St. Joseph's Hospital on the South Side did not provide adequate medical care when Morena was brought in, shot in the back, on Nov. 15, 1975.

Morena was bleeding internally, and blood had filled one lung, causing it to partially collapse. The medical experts noted that a chest tube should have been inserted to drain Morena's lung but it wasn't.

"This is first aid that dates back to the '40s, '50s and '60s," testified Dr. Joseph Fastow, an emergency room specialist who now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. "It certainly isn't rocket science."

Because St. Joseph's doctors didn't have the equipment or training to treat Morena's wound, he was transported to Mercy Hospital. But he wasn't taken for 45 minutes because a private ambulance had to be summoned when doctors ruled that his condition wasn't bad enough to warrant a trip in a city ambulance, Fastow testified.

The delay in getting Morena treatment was "remarkable" in that Morena lived long enough to reach Mercy hospital but then died, Fastow said. He noted that Morena didn't arrive at Mercy Hospital until 1 1/2 hours after he had been shot.

With "the chest tube and other things, yes, he would have lived," testified Dr. Cyril Wecht, who was Allegheny County coroner then as now. Morena's death was "directly caused by subsequent acts of medical negligence," not the gunshot wound itself, he testified.

Wecht testified that he didn't know in 1975 about the mistakes at the hospital, and that the issues did not arise until 1983, when the doctors and the hospital settled a civil suit filed by Morena's family for $100,000. In that settlement, neither the doctors nor the hospital admitted any medical negligence.

"If we had known, ... it all would have come out," Wecht testified.

Jeffrey Manning, who prosecuted the case and now is a judge, testified that he knew nothing about any medical problems that might have contributed to Morena's death.

If he had known, he said, he would have presented all the evidence he had -- including a witness who testified that Wideman had confessed to being part of Morena's killing -- and then let the jury decide whether Wideman was guilty of homicide.

Defense Attorney Gary Zimmerman, who was a young public defender when he handled Wideman's defense, testified that he also knew nothing about what happened at St. Joseph's Hospital that night. If he had known, he said, that would have been the cornerstone of his defense. As it was, he presented no defense witnesses at the trial.

Morena, 24, owned a used car lot on Saw Mill Run Boulevard when he agreed to buy stolen TVs from three Homewood men in 1975. Those men were Wideman, Michael Dukes and Cecil Rice. But the deal went bad, and Morena ran when the men robbed him of $800. One witness testified at the trial that Wideman said, "Stop him," and that Dukes then shot Morena.

Wideman later became the subject of the book "Brothers and Keepers," written by his brother, John Edgar Wideman. While in prison, he has earned several degrees and taught classes.

Dukes also was convicted of second-degree murder and is serving a life term. Rice was convicted of third-degree murder and has been released after serving his prison sentence.

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