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Court pulls plug on Wideman retrial

Tuesday, May 23, 2000

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Clara Morena has vowed to fight for the rest of her life to keep Robert Wideman in jail for the death of her son, Nichola, more than a quarter-century ago.

Yesterday, Morena, 69, got word that state Superior Court has helped her cause by overturning a Common Pleas Court ruling that had granted Wideman a new trial and possible release from prison.

"I said, 'There is a God in heaven above. He answered our prayers. There is justice,'" Morena said, hours after a representative from the Allegheny County district attorney's office told her of the ruling.

"Now my son can rest in peace. That man has put out hell and torture since my son got killed. That is the best news of my life."

Senior Common Pleas Judge James R. McGregor presided at the 1976 trial in which Wideman was convicted of second-degree murder and robbery.

McGregor granted Wideman a new trial in 1998 following an appeal based on information discovered long after the first trial. McGregor also granted Wideman bail but a last-minute appeal by District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. stopped him from being freed.

The new information, which came to light in a civil suit filed by Morena's family, was that medical malpractice had been determined to be the cause of Morena's death. In fact, the Morena family won a suit against doctors at the former St. Joseph's Hospital on the South Side, where Morena was taken after he was shot in the back.

McGregor ruled the information could have made a difference in the criminal trial.

Morena, 24, owned a used car lot on Saw Mill Run Boulevard where three Homewood men, Wideman, now 49, Michael Dukes and Cecil Rice, who has finished serving a 10- to 20-year sentence for third-degree murder, robbed him of $800.

The three men drove to Morena's lot in a panel truck that they said was loaded with stolen television sets they planned to sell to Morena. One witness testified at the trial that as Morena ran from the robbers, Wideman said, "Stop him," and that Dukes then shot Morena.

A three-judge panel's opinion, issued Friday by Superior Court, amounts to vindication for prosecutors, relief for Morena's family and a setback for Wideman and Dukes.

The court referred to a 1993 state Supreme Court ruling that said, in part, that if a victim suffered a nonfatal injury that later ended in death, the person that caused the injury was guilty of homicide.

The Superior Court panel wrote that "it is undisputed that [Wideman] and his companions shot the victim, thereby setting into motion the chain of events culminating in the victim's death. Had the victim not received prompt treatment, he would have died as a result of the gunshot wound to his lung."

Zappala issued a one-line statement on the ruling yesterday.

"We're very pleased that the Superior Court has validated the procedure that we employed in response to the request for bail and a new trial," he said.

"For 25 years, I have done nothing but go to court to stop this Wideman," Clara Morena said. "I will do it till the day I die."

Wideman became of the subject of a critically acclaimed book, "Brothers and Keepers," that was written by his brother, John Edgar Wideman.

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