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Judge affirms Wideman retrial

Tuesday, November 24, 1998

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

A judge yesterday reaffirmed his decision to grant Robert Wideman a new trial, dismissing the district attorney's argument that it isn't fair to force prosecutors to retry a 23-year-old murder case.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge James McGregor also scheduled a court hearing for this morning to decide whether Wideman should be freed on bond pending either a new trial or an appeal of the judge's decision.

Wideman was convicted of the 1975 shooting death of Nichola "Nickie" Morena, who was gunned down as three men robbed him. Wideman was sentenced to life in prison on a second-degree murder conviction.

But McGregor ruled new evidence that doctors made serious mistakes when treating Morena "cries out," as the judge put it yesterday, for a new trial.

Morena wouldn't have died if doctors hadn't been negligent, and a jury might have convicted Wideman of a lesser degree of homicide that would have allowed his release from prison by now, McGregor said.

The district attorney's office argued that Morena wouldn't have needed a doctor if he hadn't been shot in the first place, and vowed to appeal McGregor's decision to a higher court.

Last month, McGregor granted Wideman a new trial but reserved the right to change his mind at yesterday's hearing on whether a prosecution could be mounted again at this late date.

At the four-hour hearing, McGregor heard testimony that it would not be fair to the prosecution to try the case again.

Police files, photos of the crime scene and other evidence that was used at the trial have disappeared since 1975 and cannot be found, city police homicide Sgt. Paul Marraway told the judge.

The file used by the prosecutor at the time has been missing since at least 1984, testified U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth Benson, who searched for it when he was with the district attorney's office in 1984.

Police witnesses have retired and civilian witnesses have moved out of the area, assistant district attorney Rebecca Spangler said.

That doesn't matter, McGregor decided. The transcript of the original trial is available and can be read to the jury. Other witnesses can testify about medical malpractice and how it related to the cause of Morena's death, he said.

"You're in better shape now than you ever were back then," McGregor told Spangler, who has strenuously fought to prevent a new trial.

"Now you know what witnesses are going to say," he said. "That you're going to be inconvenienced isn't grounds for not having a new trial."

Doctors at the former St. Joseph's Hospital on the South Side admitted in 1983, in a civil lawsuit filed by the Morena family, that they did not insert a chest tube into Morena after he was shot and dawdled in having him transferred to another hospital for surgery.

Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht testified that Morena would have lived if proper medical care had been provided.

If the original jury had known that doctors made mistakes, jurors might not have convicted Wideman, or might have convicted him of a lesser degree of homicide, McGregor said.

Wideman and two other men were convicted of killing Morena during a robbery. At the original trial, a witness testified that when Morena tried to run away, Wideman said "get him," which resulted in Michael Dukes shooting Morena in the back. Morena died several hours later.

Dukes and Wideman were convicted of second-degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison. A third man, Cecil Rice, was convicted of a lesser degree of homicide, third-degree murder, and was released after serving his prison term.

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