The case of an Alabama death row inmate awarded a new trial last year by a Mobile County Circuit Court judge is inching through the appeals process. On Oct. 15, the panel of judges on the state Court of Criminal Appeals is expected to hear the Attorney General office’s arguments contesting an order Judge Sarah Stewart issued in favor of William Ziegler, who was convicted for the February 2000 stabbing death of Allen Baker in West Mobile.
In a brief filed in March, Assistant Attorney General Lauren Simpson requested the hearing, alleging Stewart’s ruling found “no claims in the State’s favor” and “wrongly granted post-conviction relief based on Brady violations, ineffective assistance of counsel, and juror misconduct.”
Stewart’s order was the result of a 2010 “Rule 32” hearing, which procedurally allows capital defendants to seek relief based on “collateral issues” of their case, after the direct appeals process has been exhausted. In Ziegler’s case, a pro-bono team of attorneys called 24 witnesses and introduced more than 600 pieces of evidence indicating he was pinned for the murder after the initial investigation was tainted by conflict-of-interest, material witnesses changed their stories originally implicating other defendants, prosecutors discarded exculpatory evidence and Ziegler’s defense team was wholly ineffective, from entering pleas of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity without his consent to spending a minimal amount of resources on its own investigation.
Stewart also determined Ziegler’s jury was corrupted by one juror who had served and recommended the death penalty in a separate case and a second juror whose cousin and brother-in-law were both victims of homicide. Also during the hearing one witness, Vicky Bosarge, went so far as to recant her original testimony, saying contrary to earlier testimony she hadn’t overheard Ziegler refer to Baker as “a walking dead man” and she couldn’t identify who did. In fact, Bosarge and two other witnesses testified Ziegler wasn’t even present when the claim was made.
Stewart concluded in her order the court found “by a preponderance of evidence that Ziegler’s constitutional guarantees were not fulfilled…Whether because of multiple violations of his due process protections…because of the myriad failures of trial and appellate to provide constitutionally adequate representation under the Sixth Amendment, or because of the significant failures in the selection of the jury, Ziegler’s constitutional right to a fair trial was violated in numerous respects. Under any analysis, this Court cannot say that Ziegler received a fair trial and, accordingly…he is entitled to a new trial.”
But the state sees the results of Ziegler’s Rule 32 hearing differently. In it’s brief, the Attorney’ General’s office claims the “Rule 32 court abused its discretion when it found that the State withheld exculpatory material, that Ziegler’s trial counsel were ineffective in virtually every aspect of their representation, that Zeigler’s appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise to certain issues, and that Ziegler’s juror misconduct claim was not procedurally barred. As such, that court’s order granting Ziegler a new trial should be reversed.”
Regarding the Rule 32 court’s finding that the prosecution suppressed exculpatory evidence, the state contends since the issue was not raised at Ziegler’s original trial or on subsequent appeal, rules of criminal procedure prohibit the allegation from being raised during Rule 32 proceedings. At issue is whether a car belonging to co-defendant Jay Bennett should have been admitted into evidence, considering a creditor who later repossessed the vehicle testified to finding “blood all over the back,” as well as a discarded evidence bag containing a bloody sweatshirt.
Ziegler was convicted on testimony of co-defendants who alleged Baker was stabbed to death in the woods near Ziegler’s apartment following a sustained beating inside. Yet a veteran investigator with the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office said the scene where Baker’s body was found looked more like a “dump site,” on account of a suspicious lack of blood. Witness statements that originally implicated Bennett and another defendant, William Randall, eventually evolved to pinpoint Ziegler as the person who stabbed Baker dozens of times and later, nearly severed his head with a knife.
Despite the seemingly damning testimony indicating the victim was never transported in Baker’s car, the state’s brief claims “even if Baker’s body had been in the vehicle, it would not have exculpated Ziegler.”
Ziegler and Patricia Davis, his girlfriend at the time, both admitted to hitting Baker, but maintained the victim left the scene, alive, with Bennett and Randall afterward. Davis and Ziegler had been hosting a Mardi Gras party that night, which was also attended by witnesses Sarah Meyers and Dawn Kohn.
Kohn, 14-years-old at the time, was the niece of then-MCSO Detective Dale Kohn, who was the first law enforcement officer to respond to a missing persons report filed on Baker’s behalf. Dale Kohn’s investigation quickly led him to Bennett, who in turn led him to Baker’s mutilated body near Ziegler’s apartment. Dawn Kohn would subsequently give three different statements of what happened that night, the first implicating Bennett, but later implicating Ziegler.
Although Dale Kohn would later be removed from the investigation, it wasn’t until after he had first spoken to his own niece about the incident or until after he had been left alone with Baker’s body.
“These facts, particularly when combined with the conflicted role of Detective Kohn, could have given a reasonable juror reason to believe that the investigation of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office was improperly directed away from potentially implicating Dawn Kohn in Baker’s death,” Stewart wrote. “Had Baker been killed or transported in Bennett’s car at a time when Kohn was in the car, Dawn Kohn could have potentially have been charged as an accomplice or accessory in Baker’s death. If the jury had learned that Dawn Kohn initially implicated Bennett alone as Baker’s killer, but only changed her story after coming to the Sheriff’s Office, the lingering question of why her statement had changed could have provided fertile ground for the jury to find reasonable doubt about whether the police had charged the right person in Baker’s death.”
Regarding Bosarge’s recantation of testimony, the state dismissed her as “bizarre” and “erratic,” claiming “it is baffling that the Rule 32 court found Bosarge a credible witness.” In its brief, the Attorney General’s office argued Bosarge was a secondary, circumstantial witness who “had nothing to gain by implicating,” Ziegler whose original testimony was corroborated by other witnesses.
The 168-page brief arbitrarily refutes every other aspect of Stewart’s ruling, from the ineffectiveness of his trial and appellate defense team to the process by which jurors were selected and sentencing was considered. October’s oral arguments are largely procedural, but provide each side 30 minutes for an impassioned plea before the court.
Multiple attempts to speak with members of Bennett’s family have been unsuccessful, but Ziegler’s mother, Odella Wilson, said while her family was relieved by Stewart’s ruling last year, they are guarded about the state’s response. Ziegler has remained on death row in Holman State Prison while the order for a new trial is being contested.
“It’s a process, unfortunately a long drawn-out process,” Wilson said. “I don’t know of a single case where a ruling was determined during oral arguments. The state is pulling on every technicality of the law to drag this out longer, and they’re entitled to do that according to Alabama criminal appeals law.
She said while her communication with her son was “limited,” she knows he is “highly frustrated” by the state’s ability to potentially “drag it out another three-to-five years.”
“Anybody who looks at this with an unbiased and untainted view, you have to ask what is going on at the state AG’s office,” she said. “We have a situation where on twisted, manipulated, circumstantial evidence they sentenced a person to death and the state withheld all the valid forensic evidence which proved the person they were convicting was innocent. It blows the mind.”
Speaking with Lagniappe last year, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Tillman, who originally prosecuted the case, disagreed with Stewart’s ruling, noting Ziegler’s previous appeals were rejected by both the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court. A guidebook on the state’s death penalty appeals process published by Attorney General Luther Strange refers to capital murder cases as “some of the most difficult and complex to prosecute,” a task that “does not become easier on appeal. The appeals process moves at a much slower pace than the trial court process,” the book cautions, adding “many times it will take decades to reach a conclusion.”