It was scheduled to be a routine status update, another standard courtroom proceeding in a years-long appeal of William Ziegler’s 2000 conviction on a capital murder charge, but even as witnesses who were subpoenaed to appear waited in the wings of Circuit Court Judge Sarah Stewart’s courtroom April 16, prosecutors decided to offer a plea deal.
Ziegler, who spent more than 13 years on Alabama’s death row before being awarded a new trial in 2013, could walk free that day if he pled guilty to a reduced murder charge, admitting on the record that he aided and abetted in the death of Allen Baker, who was stabbed more than 100 times and nearly decapitated after a party at Ziegler’s apartment.
Ziegler’s attorneys, who themselves had spent more than seven years reviewing his conviction and were preparing for his retrial later this summer, helped him weigh his options. He could accept the conviction and walk free, or he could go to trial and risk another five or more years behind bars. At the time, the state was still pursuing the death penalty, so despite being nearly a year removed from the confines of Holman Prison and introducing a compelling alternate theory that could have exonerated him altogether, there was a risk a jury in a new trial could have put Ziegler right back where he started.
“The only reason I took that deal was to go home,” Ziegler said an hour after his release, in an exclusive interview with Lagniappe that is available in its entirety online. “That’s it.”
Lagniappe took particular interest in Ziegler’s 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 Lagniappe should review his legal representation of Ziegler, which was the subject of ongoing appeals.
Since that time, Lagniappe has published numerous stories of Ziegler’s case, which was essentially closed last week after he pleaded guilty. But his admission of guilt was sudden, and contrary to the defense built on appeal, where new evidence suggested Zielger was only pinned for the crime after being subjected to prosecutorial misconduct, a tainted jury and a wholly ineffective legal counsel.
In conversations that occurred off-the-record in the waning years of his incarceration, Ziegler maintained his innocence and told a reporter he would never accept a plea deal. As a free man, he explained ultimately, his options were limited.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Ziegler was originally convicted based on the testimony of two co-defendants and the statements of witnesses the appeals process suggested changed as the investigation developed. In the courtroom on the day Ziegler was set free, was former Mobile County Det. Dale Kohn, whose niece Dawn attended the party that would prove to be Baker’s last.
In awarding Ziegler a new trial in 2013, Judge Stewart ruled the investigation was complicated by the inherent conflict of interest in Det. Kohn’s involvement.
Part of Ziegler’s alternate theory, one Stewart did not dismiss, was that Det. Kohn may have steered the investigation toward Ziegler to deflect scrutiny from his own niece. After his release, Ziegler was much more direct.
“This is not complete for me,” he said in response to a question about the ambiguity of his plea. “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.”
Detective Kohn was given an opportunity to respond to the statement but declined. Dawn Kohn has been given multiple opportunities to comment throughout the developments in Ziegler’s appeal, but has also refused.
In March, defense attorneys asked Judge Stewart to dismiss the case after the state testified in January it had lost or destroyed multiple pieces of evidence which would have been favorable to Ziegler’s defense. Attorney Nick Lagemann said the Attorney General’s office, who took over the case from the Mobile County District Attorney’s office late last year, took a markedly different approach to defending the conviction.
“I do think the Attorney General’s office, in responding to the (recent evidentiary) discovery order, acted wholly consistently and very professionally in bringing forward or establishing the record that showed that this evidence had been lost or destroyed,” Lagemann said.
Later he emphasized, “When you heard the state’s allocution today, that was a very different theory than the first trial that, you know, tried to paint Willie as some kind of ringleader. What you heard today was essentially an aiding and abetting or accessory theory.”
In a subsequent interview with a TV reporter, District Attorney Ashley Rich expressed frustration with the plea agreement, saying her office had not been notified or advised. Assistant District Attorney Deborah Tillman was the original prosecutor in the case.
According the Equal Justice Initiative, 3,095 people in the United States currently are under a death sentence. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 the organization claims, 1,369 men, women, children and mentally ill people have been shot, hanged, asphyxiated, lethally injected, and electrocuted by states and the federal government. In the same time, at least 153 people have been released from death row after evidence of their innocence was uncovered.
Just two weeks prior to Ziegler’s release, Alabama exonerated Anthony Ray Hinton, who sat on death row for 30 years before the state admitted the bullets from the two murders he was accused of committing did not come from a gun the prosecution presented into evidence at trial.
Ziegler became the seventh previously condemned inmate to be released in Alabama.
Afterward, he said, “The death penalty needs to be abolished. For one, it’s run by people and people are fallible. There cannot be a perfect system. There is too much error rate.”
Ziegler also said in the 13 years he spent alongside at least 190 inmates on “The Row,” he came to believe at least five others he left behind were also innocent.
Before she dismissed Ziegler from the courtroom one final time, Judge Stewart urged him to recognize “God’s grace,” in his release.
“I want you to be thankful for your gift of freedom,” she said. “You need to be very careful what you do. Freedom has great responsibilities and it is going to be very important that you make the right moves, that you show good judgment and that you choose the right path. The world is very different than it was 15 years ago when you went to jail. And if you find yourself needing to reach out … it would be easy for you to be bitter and angry and focus on what you feel is the injustice of this case, but I really want you — and I know it’s harder but it’s important — to focus on the justice that has been accomplished. Your lawyers have worked so hard over the last seven years to free you and I don’t want that to be wasted because of some destructive purpose by you. So please embrace God’s grace and freedom and be a productive, happy member of our community.”
After dismissing the gallery from the courtroom, Stewart offered praise for both sides of the bench, admitting she almost wished the case had gone to trial, if only to witness the strategy.
“You hear that prosecutors can lose focus and protect the state rather than the victim … and that is very hard to say. But it is very difficult in reality to balance your ethical duty — and I recognize it’s inherently difficult — to protect the public from harm and the rights of the victims … and the rights of the accused,” Stewart told the prosecutors. “I’m not surprised, based on your performance in my courtroom in the past, but I am proud that y’all chose to honor your ethical role as a prosecutor, and promote the cause of justice in the face of what I imagine is a great deal of pressure.”
Ziegler’s release was the result of a Rule 32 appeal, the second tier of a three-tiered capital penalty appeals process by which new evidence can be entered. It was spearheaded by Lagemann and other attorneys from New York-based law firm Sidley Austin LLP, who “caught wind” of its irregularities from the Equal Justice Intiative, Lagemann said. But he also wished to thank his partner Ben Nagin, as well as a local team that included Henry Callaway, Jeff Deen and Brandy Hambright.
With the exception of Deen and Hambright, who joined the appeal within the past 18 months, none of the attorneys who vouched for Ziegler specialize in criminal defense.
Sidley Austin is reviewing at least 17 other capital cases in Alabama, which is the only state in the nation without a state-funded program to provide legal assistance to death row prisoners to challenge wrongful convictions.
Attorneys in Ziegler’s appeal worked pro-bono, meaning they were not compensated.
Lagemann explained it was the decision of his firm’s management and executive committees “to dedicate our firm toward taking on those cases because once you take them, you bought them. And to do it right takes an immense amount of hours, time, effort and our firm has never wavered.”
Ziegler was grateful, adding “it takes pure dedication and it’s not just a business interest, but it takes personal interest because you have to get personally involved to be able to fight the way they have and the way they do.”
As for what’s next, Ziegler said he was going to spend time with his wife Tammy, who he married while incarcerated, and try to build a relationship with his two sons, who are 21 and 15 years old.
“I told you I’m still trying to absorb everything,” he said, before he even had a chance to eat a meal that wasn’t prepared in a jailhouse kitchen. “So I’m going to have to learn how to be a dad I guess, one day at a time.”
Co-defendants William Randall and Jay Bennett continue to serve sentences of life in prison and 20 years, respectively.