William John Ziegler, a Mobile County man who spent the last 15 years and 50 days incarcerated for the capital murder of Russell Allen Baker in February 2000, will be freed today after initially receiving the death penalty for the crime. In exchange for his freedom, Ziegler pled guilty to murder for “aiding and abetting” his co-defendants, according to defense attorney Jeff Deen. He was released on time served.
Weeks ago, defense attorneys asked Mobile County Circuit Court Judge Sarah Stewart to dismiss the charge, more than a year after Ziegler had been awarded a new trial based on ineffective counsel and prosecutorial misconduct at his original trial, among other things. According to Deen, the plea agreement was an acknowledgement that despite admissions from prosecutors they could no longer account for valuable exculpatory evidence in the case, a jury in a potential retrial may have still been unfavorable toward the defendant.
“(There) was all kinds of legal maneuvering that would sound boring, but it put the state in a posture that they thought their case was not that strong,” Deen explained. “Of course on the other hand we’ve got the case where it could go to trial and the guy gets convicted again and he stays in prison for the rest of his life, so we kind of worked a compromise where the state felt that 15 years was enough to pay his debt to society.”
William Randall and Jay Bennett, two co-defendants in the case who pinned the actual murder on Ziegler despite conflicting statements from other witnesses, remain in prison with separate sentences of life and 20 years, respectively. Baker was stabbed more than 100 times and nearly decapitated after being beaten during an alcohol-fueled party at an apartment Ziegler shared with his girlfriend at the time.
Prosecutors maintained all three were at the scene of the crime, but on appeal, defense attorneys claimed Baker left the party alive with Randall and Bennett, only to have his body “dumped” in the woods near Ziegler’s apartment after he was murdered somewhere else.
“We don’t think he did it but there was a lot of shenanigans going on at the apartment that night that puts him in the middle of some things that could lead to his conviction, or a conviction on some lesser offense that could put him back in prison so I think it was a very excellent disposition of the case,” Deen explained.
In the courtroom, Stewart asked Ziegler to acknowledge that he received fair representation on appeal and that he understood the plea agreement in full. He offered no statements for the record besides a simple “yes ma’am.”
Afterward, Baker’s aunt Beth Johanson wept in the hallway as she told a TV reporter justice hadn’t been served. According to accounts from the time, the trio of defendants had initially been charged with murder, but the family urged prosecutors to upgrade it to a capital offense.
Ziegler is the second former Alabama death row inmate to be released in as many weeks, and the seventh since 1983. Unlike the others, however, his release does not constitute an exoneration. The guilty plea on murder is his second felony conviction on his record.
In her own remarks, balancing compassion with the victim’s family with concern for the defendant, Stewart sternly warned Ziegler against reoffending, and urged him to recognize “God’s grace” in his extraordinary opportunity for another chance after being among the moderately sized group of inmates facing execution on Alabama’s death row.
“Mr Ziegler I know that you recognize God’s Grace at work here,” Stewart said. “I want you to embrace that gracefully and I want you to be thankful for your gift of freedom. 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.”
Stephanie Billingslea, a prosecutor the Attorney General’s office who took over the appeal from the Mobile County District Attorney last year, denied an opportunity to comment.
Ziegler’s most recent appeal, the result of what is known as a “Rule 32” in Alabama, was spearheaded by a pro-bono team from New-York based Sidley Austin LLP. Sidley attorneys Ben Nagin and Nick Lagemann have remained tight-lipped about the process outside of the courtroom, but Deen emphasized they are responsible for the bulk of the work. Ziegler was also represented locally by Henry Callaway, who was recently appointed to a 14-year judgeship in federal bankruptcy court that begins next month.
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.”
Deen said Zeigler, 39, is a mechanic by trade, and will attempt to find work upon release. He did not say where he would live, but said “probably not” Mobile.
Reached by phone after the hearing, Ziegler’s wife Tammy — who met and married the defendant after his conviction — said she was in the process of driving to Mobile to pick up her husband. Promising to elaborate after she had more time to think, she offered simply that it was “a dream come true.”
“I’m pleased. That’s all I can say,” she said. “He’s coming home.”