Editor’s Note: Approximately 45 minutes after William Ziegler was unconditionally released from jail yesterday, following more than 13 years on Alabama’s death row and 15 years plus 50 days of combined incarceration, he sat down for an hour-long interview with Lagniappe to discuss his case alongside attorneys Nick Lagemann and Henry Callaway.
Lagniappe took particular interest in this case after an investigation we spearheaded in 2009 revealed his initial attorney was by far the top earner in Mobile County’s indigent defense program. At the time, attorney Habib Yazdi, who was years removed from the Ziegler case, was paid approximately $174,000 in one year to represent defendants who were too poor to hire an attorney of their own.
As a part of that investigation, we discovered Yazdi had been the subject of at least two disciplinary actions by the Alabama State Bar, including one in which he produced a loaded semi-automatic pistol in a courtroom where he was going through divorce proceedings with his wife. Later, someone familiar with his work on the Ziegler case suggested we should review his legal representation of Ziegler, which was the subject of ongoing appeals.
Since that time, we have published numerous stories of Ziegler’s case, which concluded yesterday when he accepted a plea agreement to take a conviction on a murder charge in exchange for his immediate release on time served.
With the exception of a few comments which were deleted at the author’s discretion, the entire interview is reproduced below.
Let’s start at the end. Essentially you have a murder conviction. That isn’t going to make it easy for you on the outside.
William Ziegler: Well life isn’t easy as it is. What happens to me and my future is completely up to my actions. Whether there is a murder conviction or no murder conviction. It’s up to me and how I proceed with my future and I am in total control of that. If it could have ended differently, I think there would have been a few factors that would have been in place. One, if I had been maybe four or five years in, then I would have had no problem continuing to stand on that soapbox and scream, but it’s been over 15 years. I was 24 (years old) when I went down, now I’m 39. Your resolve runs out. Patience runs thin. And the simple risk of them possibly — I wasn’t worried about being convicted (by a jury) of murder. It was the possibility of them hitting me with kidnapping. Because I did have a prior Class A felony, that would force the court to sentence me to a minimum of 20 years. That would have put me behind the fence for an additional five. That was not an option for me.
Was the kidnapping charge on the table?
Ziegler: It was what made it a capital (offense). It’s what they used to upgrade it to a capital, because remember when I was originally charged I was charged with a felony murder. After the people (victim’s family) held a rally and all that, they (prosecutors) put all these pieces together here and there and threw kidnapping in there to make it capital.
Nick Lagemann: Just in terms of particular charges, I think we all felt very confident in our case had we proceeded to trial, against any of the charges. I think we had strong defenses and strong arguments based on the facts, as they actually were. But, any trial is a risk. And at least from the legal team’s side of things, and in particular with the offer we were given, we tried our best to present Willie with the facts and the risks — I’m not sure that there was one particular charge I would say ‘this was one we were worried about’ or not. I think at the end of the day the facts would have been on our side had we gone to trial. But trial is always a risk.
But by not going to trial, it leaves so many of the facts unclear. You could have had very little to do with this crime or you could have been the man with the knife.
Ziegler: My fight is not done. This is not complete for me. I am innocent and that is just the fact of the matter. One thing I do have is the matter of record. Everything is still there. So it’s not ‘no questions can be answered.’ Everything is still laid out there. I went to the penitentiary, I believe, for Detective Kohn’s niece. For whatever her involvement was in that homicide. That’s why I believe I ended up on death row. (Former Mobile County Detective Dale Kohn was later given an opportunity to comment on this statement, but declined. His niece, a witness in the case, has been given multiple opportunities to comment throughout the developments in the appeal but has refused).
Detective Kohn was subpoenaed to appear today.
Ziegler: He was present in the courtroom.
Was there any rush an agreement, on your side or on the state’s side, based on these subpoenas?
Lagemann: Certainly not on our side. I can’t speak to what the state’s motivation was in regards to making the offer and the timing. Had we had the hearing today, we were very much looking forward to cross examining Detective Kohn. As you may have seen from the court records, he gave an audio statement that was produced to us by the Attorney General’s office a week or two ago. We expected that he would testify in accordance with what he said in that statement and we were very much prepared to cross exam him on things that were in that statement, and things that were not in that statement and other facts that we have learned in our involvement throughout the case.
Let me ask you more about that evidence and your recent motion to dismiss. If it had gone to trial, would that evidence, or lack thereof, been admissible in a new trial?
Lagemann: The overall answer would be yes. Exactly how that would come in, I think was one of the — assuming the judge, if she did not dismiss it overall based on that motion and we went to trial, I think the judge would have been called upon to make a number of evidentiary rulings about what would come in, what would already be proven and established about the fact that they (the state) had lost or destroyed multiple pieces of evidence. One of the interesting things about the case, particularly after it came back for retrial, is the record that proved the state had lost or destroyed at least seven or so pieces of evidence that we would certainly contend was material. That was proven by the state itself.
I think you would see in our original motion there was a footnote that, for lack of a better term, we commended the Attorney General’s office for bringing that to the attention of the court. I would say that was a marked contrast to what the case was previously like when it had been handled by the District Attorney’s office. I do think the Attorney General’s office, in responding to the discovery order, I think acted wholly consistently and very professionally in bringing forward or establishing the record that showed that this evidence had been lost or destroyed. But I think to your original question, yes I think absolutely that the clothing of the victim, when it was supportive of our defense, that it had been lost or destroyed when it was in possession of the District Attorney’s office. There was an affidavit for Jay Bennett’s car that must have contained information that was totally inconsistent with the state’s theory of the crime. It has never been found in any file, in the multiple files where it should have been. That the audiotape recordings …
Ziegler: They are still missing to this day.Lagemann: Well one other thing, when I mentioned Detective Kohn, had this hearing went forward, one of the things in the statement that was produced to us a couple weeks ago was that he had taken an audiotaped statement from James Bennett when he first brought Bennett to the Sheriff’s office after originally picking him up. There is no record of that, and he was adamant about that in the statement he gave to the Attorney General’s office, he said he recorded it, he said it was on a micro cassette, he said he would have given it to the secretary at the Sheriff’s office. We have never seen any record of that statement, in all our years of involvement with this case.
The only statement we’ve ever seen, and we’ve never heard the audiotape of this other statement either, but the only statement we ever saw was a statement given by Mr. Bennett to Detective Lunceford later in the night. So what would have come out, had the hearing gone forward as originally planned today is that, according to Detective Kohn’s statement, the first statement taken by the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office by the person who led them to Mr. Baker’s body, and by the person whose car they had probable cause to believe had been utilized in the murder. That first statement they ever took has never been produced in these proceedings — not in the first trial, not in the Rule 32 and not in the proceedings in the retrial. So had the hearing gone forward today as planned we would have most certainly brought that fact out and we most certainly would have made a major issue of it.
Had the retrial gone forward, how closely would it have resembled the original trial? Not necessarily as the evidence is concerned, but as for what witnesses are called? Would it have been the same people?
Ziegler: Dr. Riddick would have been the same witness, but his questions, on cross examination, would have been greatly different.
Lagemann: Again I think had the trial gone forward it would have been completely different from the original trial for a lot of reasons. When you heard the state’s allocution today, that was a very different theory than the first trial that, you know, tried to to paint Willie as some kind of ringleader. What you heard today was essentially an aiding and abetting or accessory theory.
Ziegler: And again, for the record, the only reason I took that deal was to go home. That’s it.
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