District Attorney Ashley Rich indicated she would continue to defend a capital murder conviction that has now been ordered for retrial by a total of six judges.
In a ruling May 9, the five-member Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously upheld a prior order by Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Sarah Stewart awarding William John Ziegler a new trial, after a Rule 32 hearing in 2010 ultimately found that Ziegler’s “constitutional guarantees were not fulfilled.”
Ziegler was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2000 murder of Allen Baker, who was beaten, stabbed more than 100 times and nearly decapitated after attending a party at Ziegler’s west Mobile apartment. Rich said this week she would petition the attorney general’s office to appeal the order to the state supreme court.
Ziegler’s co-defendants in the case initially gave investigators conflicting statements about who was responsible for the crime, but eventually accepted plea deals in exchange for testimony implicating Ziegler. But during the appeals process, it was determined the case was tainted by the state’s suppression of evidence, ineffective counsel in both the trial and appellate phase and jury misconduct, among other things.
In November, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals presided over oral arguments in a handful of evidence in the case, with a directive to require a new trial if it affirmed the circuit court’s relief in any single ground.
“This Court expresses no opinion on the merits of those individual issues,” the final order read. “The State conceded at oral argument that Ziegler would be entitled to a new trial if this Court were to affirm a single ground out of the dozens on which the circuit court granted relief. We find it unnecessary to address each and every issue when the remedy for an affirmance on any ground, i.e., a new trial, would be the same.”
Ziegler’s wife Tammy said she was “ecstatic” about the decision.
“It looks great and I personally don’t see how [the state] can come back with anything else,” she said. “We’re delighted it was unanimous. It was better than we hoped for.”
Among the testimony that was excluded from November’s oral arguments include the fact that Dawn Kohn, who attended the party at Ziegler’s apartment, was the teenage niece of one of the first sheriff’s office investigators on the scene and a bloodied car belonging to co-defendant Jay Bennett had been determined to be immaterial and never admitted into evidence.
Judge Stewart concluded in her own order in 2012 that the manner in which the murder was investigated by the state constituted “multiple violations of [Ziegler’s] due process protections” and the subsequent investigation by Habib Yazdi, Ziegler’s appointed attorney, ignored myriad evidence that would have implicated Bennett and possibly even Kohn.
Ziegler’s younger brother Jerry Wilson, who attended high school with Kohn at the time of the crime, offered his own theory on the conviction and said last week that the appeals court’s ruling was “a long time coming.”
“Maybe the prosecution felt they had a slam dunk case,” he said. “If they knew there were a couple of crackpot public defenders that would do less than an adequate job, maybe they got the [witnesses] to come in and say what they wanted on the stand. I don’t know what happened that night but I think [prosecutors] took advantage of the naiveté of a bunch of kids at that age — maybe they said ‘you’re going to jail for a long time or you’re going to the electric chair’ — there’s no telling what was said, but he was played upon when they saw a viable way to get a conviction.”
Wilson said although he was sheltered from the facts of the case as a teenager, he never doubted his brother’s innocence. As to who’s to blame for the mangled investigation, Wilson believes it can be spread evenly.
“The system is only as good as the people that work for it,” he said. “Some want to do the right thing, but for others it’s just a job, they do the minimal amount of work required and leave when they get a paycheck. The blame can go in so many different directions; the detective who should have not been involved because of a conflict of interest, a witness who should not have been called who recanted her testimony, a district attorney who was overzealous to get a conviction, public defenders who should have not passed the bar exam. There are so many problems with his case and the legal red tape that took so long to get [an appeal] moving.”
Ben Nagin, a volunteer attorney working on Ziegler’s appeals from New York, said it was “meaningful all the appellate judges were in agreement and determined Judge Stewart applied the law correctly.
“Willie has been on death row for over a decade and the evidence is compelling he’s not guilty,” he said. “We think it’s time for him to go home.”
Multiple attempts to reach Rich’s office for comment were unsuccessful.
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.