The Alabama Attorney General’s office will retry the capital murder charge against William John Ziegler, who was convicted of stabbing and cutting the throat of Allen Baker after an alcohol-fueled Mardi Gras get-together in West Mobile on Feb. 19, 2000. An exhaustive review of the conviction in a “Rule 32” appeal years later led Circuit Court Judge Sarah Stewart to overturn Ziegler’s conviction in 2011, determining he was subjected to multiple violations of due process rights, not limited to ineffective counsel, withheld evidence, conflicts of interest during the investigation and a tainted jury.
Ziegler spent 13 years on Holman Prison’s death row before being returned to Mobile Metro Jail this summer.
Assistant District Attorney JoBeth Murphree, a county prosecutor assigned to the case before handing it over to the AG’s office earlier this week, cited Stewart’s ruling as the reason for the new, Montgomery-based prosecution team.
“It speaks for itself,” she said. “If you look at the order that was written you can kind of understand why the state may have a better chance.”
In today’s hearing, Stewart set Zeigler’s retrial for Aug. 17, 2015, while Zeigler’s defense team made an argument for his bond. Attorney Nick Lagemann said at this point, the state was continuing to rely on false testimony and assumptions from his original trial to keep him behind bars.
Lagemann urged Stewart to consider her own order from the Rule 32 trial, particularly that which determined Baker may not have been killed where his body was discovered. The state contends Ziegler and two co-defendants, Jay Bennett and William Randall, kidnapped Baker after an extended beating at Ziegler’s apartment, then walked him down a dirt road and into the woods where Randall and Ziegler stabbed him more than 100 times and Ziegler nearly severed his head while the victim was still alive. Baker’s body was discovered at the site four days later.
But expert witnesses called by the defense during Ziegler’s appeal determined a lack of blood under Baker’s body, coupled with the absence of developed insect larvae, suggested Baker was killed elsewhere before his body was dumped at the site.
Perhaps one of the most curious elements of the appeal, one not referenced during today’s hearing, was the testimony of a car dealer who repossessed Bennett’s car and
remembered it being “covered in blood.” A witness in the original investigation also testified seeing Bennett attempting to clean the car shortly after the murder.
Today, Lagemann referenced a 2003 state Supreme Court case, Ex Parte Patel, that determined capital defendants must meet three prerequisites to be denied bail: “The evidence must be clear and strong, that it would lead a well-guarded and dispassionate judgment to the conclusion that (1) the offense has been committed; (2) the accused is the guilty agent; and (3) he would probably be punished capitally if the law is administered.”
Ziegler nor his attorneys have ever denied the murder, Lagemann said, just Ziegler’s role in it. Lagemann said the appeal testimony, along with statements a key witness later recanted, suggest there was a “one-and-a-half to three-hour window” in which Ziegler was not present, where initial statements gathered during the investigation indicate Randall and Bennett left with Baker, while Ziegler fell asleep.
“The evidence is frankly overwhelming,” Lagemann told the judge. “We have received no written response to our (bond) motion filed in August. The state is not offering evidence to rebut what we put forward. The right to bond may not be automatic in a capital case, but without a rebuttal, the burden shifts from bail being denied.”
The AG’s team, on other hand, cited the 2009 Alabama Supreme Court case Ex Parte Wilding, in which the Criminal Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s order for bond in a capital case because the defendant was “imprisoned by virtue of an indictment [and] he is presumed to be guilty in the highest degree, and to be entitled to bail as a right, must overcome this presumption by proof.”
As one of Baker’s family members quietly wept in the background, Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Billingslea recounted the details of the crime according to the original trial, noting the “defendant has a very high burden of proof and none of the things he has mentioned or argued to this court exculpate him.”
Billingslea said in a retrial, the state will rely on a “wealth of circumstantial evidence” as well as the testimony of witnesses presented in the original trial.
Stewart is expected to rule on Ziegler’s bond motion within two weeks. She also set various other deadlines for discovery and hearings, and clearly set out each party’s responsibilities while warning, “I don’t want there to be any problems with this case like the initial trial.”
Stewart also suggested she would issue a gag order in the case, saying, “we are not going to try it in the newspaper.”
Among the findings of Ziegler’s appeal was that he was represented inadequately at his original trial. Whereas his original, court-appointed lead attorney Habib Yazdi had never represented a capital defendant, Ziegler is now represented by a team of seasoned criminal defense attorneys including Jeff Deen, Henry Callaway and Brandy Hambright. Lagemann and another attorney, Benjamin Nagin, both of Sidley Austin LLP in New York, are working on the case as a part of their firm’s pro-bono capital litigation project.
Earlier this month, Stewart granted a total of $35,000 toward hiring expert witnesses in Ziegler’s defense.
“It’s going to cost a lot,” Deen said of the retrial, after today’s hearing. “We feel like Mr. Ziegler got a bad deal the last time, so he’s looking forward to his new day in court so he can finally be exonerated.”