Friday, October 14, 2005

William Nieves' family needs our help

Dear friends,

When William Nieves was released from prison on October 23, 2000, after six years on death row for a crime he did not commit, Philadelphia County gave him a SEPTA token and a set of clothes. At 1 A.M.

In the five years between his release and his passing on October 8, William had ongoing health problems, problems stemming from his wrongful incarceration, during which he claimed he did not receive proper medical care. This lack of care is ultimately what killed him at the young age of 39. William also did not have health insurance, and his numerous doctor's visits and hospital stays created a tremendous financial burden on himself and his family.

And now his family has the additional costs of funeral and burial arrangements to say goodbye to their son, brother, and father who left us much too early.

Because death penalty abolitionists are so often such kind-hearted people, it was inevitable that we would get this question: How can we help? William's family has not asked us for help and, as far as we can tell, had every intention of finding some way to get through this financial burden.

However, after a few of us discussed it over the course of the last two days, we have created a way for you to help William's family. Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty has created The Innocents Assistance Fund. To contribute, simply make a check payable to "Innocents Assistance Fund" and note in the memo "William Nieves memorial". Checks can be sent to:
Innocents Assistance Fund
c/o Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty
315 Peffer Street
Harrisburg, PA 17102

All donations to the Innocents Assistance Fund are tax-deductible.

It is worth publicly noting those who helped to make this possible. Thank you to Karl Keys of New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who is also a friend of the dp abolitionist movement in PA and who voiced the idea. Former PA Abolitionists staffers Jeff Garis and Kurt Rosenberg helped facilitate the process and find a way to get this done. And CPADP treasurer John Hargreaves assisted in the logistical aspects.

If you created a list of those who have played a key role in the abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania in the last five years, William would have to be on that list. His passion, his dedication, and his perseverance through a nightmare of an experience were qualities we all admired. We will miss him and will always remember him as we continue to strive toward the end of capital punishment in our great Commonwealth.

Andy Hoover
President, CPADP
Executive Director, PA Abolitionists

The Innocents Assistance Fund is a project of Central Pennsylvanians to Abolish the Death Penalty, a 501-c-3 tax-exempt organization. All donations to the Innocents Assistance Fund are tax-deductible. For more information on William's story, visit our website at

William will not be forgotten

If you named the most important people in the anti-death penalty movement in PA in the last five years, William Nieves would have to be on the list, maybe at the top.

I had the honor of meeting William just a few weeks after his release. I was only a few months into involvement in the anti-dp movement, so I was quite green. William and I met at a speech given by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, in Harrisburg. We didn't talk a lot, and I just remember making an awkward comment about getting his life back on track. I remember thinking, 'What do you say to a guy who just faced execution for something he didn't do?'

William and I crossed paths a few more times after that. He spoke in Harrisburg at the annual meeting of CPADP and Legislative Initiative Against the Death Penalty in October, 2001. That was memorable because a few off-duty Harrisburg police officers attended and challenged William during the Q&A session. It wasn't hostile, but it certainly wasn't friendly.

But who could blame William for being pissed at the police? In the killing of Eric McAiley, the crime for which William was convicted, they were told by three witnesses that the shooter was someone of a different race. I'd be a little teed up, too, if the police knew along that I was not the guy.

William visited Harrisburg again in the fall of 2002 to cap off the Voices of Innocence tour, which was a speaking tour around the state involving William, Ray Krone, and a few members of PA Abolitionists' staff. William gave a rousing speech on the steps of the capitol, which was most memorable for his ire toward our state legislators and his statement that they were cowering behind their desks, afraid to face the protestors outside. That day finished off with a march on and visit in Governor Schweiker's office, although it was left to the Guv's staff to actually meet with the innocents.

Perhaps the most appalling moment in William's post-release life that I witnessed came during his appearance on WITF-TV's "Smart Talk", a public affairs show on our local PBS affiliate, within a year of his release. William appeared with Cumberland County DA Skip Ebert, WGAL-TV's Rob Lang, and former Attorney General Ernie Preate (I think Ernie was there). On the show that night, Ebert claimed, in so many words, that William had gotten away with murder. Initially, Ebert made some implications, but Lang, being the TV reporter, wouldn't let him get away and asked, "Are you saying this man got away with murder?" After a long pause, Ebert didn't come right out and say, "Yes," but he said enough.

That's how DAs operate. They circle the wagons and protect their own, even in the face of obvious injustice. Prosecutors have been known to continue insisting on an exonerated man's guilt even after DNA evidence has cleared him. In Ray Krone's lawsuit against Maricopa County and the city of Phoenix, Ray claimed that prosecutors offered to take the death penalty off the table for Kenneth Phillips, the man who matched the DNA evidence from the crime scene, if Phillips said that Ray was with him when he killed Kim Ancona. Incredible.

Then, when faced with the obvious evidence that a man is innocent, the DAs will claim that the system "worked". Yeah, and who fought the system all the way to its highest levels in order to keep that innocent man in jail? Prosecutors! William is a perfect example. He first won a new trial from the trial judge in 1997 but had to wait three years for that new trial while the Philly DA's office fought it all the way to the PA Supreme Court. DAs say the system worked, but they do everything they can to be sure that it doesn't work.

I have to finish with my most memorable William moment. In 2002, during a gubernatorial debate in Harrisburg, as Green Party candidate Michael Morrill railed against the death penalty, William and Ray walked on stage and handed GOP candidate Mike Fisher and Democrat Ed Rendell t-shirts from the Voices of Innocence tour. Fisher looked scared. Rendell had a slight smile on his face, and William patted Rendell's shoulder as he walked off-stage. That was classic.

William and Ray and other exonerees who have been through it personify all of the problems with the death penalty. William will not be forgotten.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

William Nieves: 1965-2005

Pennsylvania Abolitionists
United Against the Death Penalty
Post Office Box 605
Harrisburg, PA 17108

October 10, 2005

“William Nieves will not be forgotten”
Death of an Innocent

In a tragic loss for the abolitionist community, death penalty opponents around the
Commonwealth this week mourn the death of William Nieves. William, who spent six years on Pennsylvania’s death row for a crime he did not commit, died Saturday in Philadelphia. He was 39.

“William Nieves will not be forgotten,” said Andy Hoover, executive director of Pennsylvania Abolitionists United Against the Death Penalty. “We admired him for his perseverance during his wrongful conviction and for his strength of conviction upon his release.

“His case is an example of government run amok.”

William was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994, despite a complete lack of physical evidence to tie him to the crime and only one witness who accused him. After researching the law during his imprisonment, he learned that he had received poor advice from his attorney, who was paid a total of $2,500 for the case. The trial judge ordered a new trial, but the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office fought the order for three years, taking the case all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in William’s favor.

While preparing for the second trial, William and his new lawyer learned that key evidence had been withheld from the defense. Three eyewitnesses had told Philadelphia police that the shooter was short and African-American. William was Puerto Rican and of average height. Several months after the murder, one of the witnesses was charged with an unrelated crime, and her story suddenly changed to finger William.

After the jury heard this evidence, William won his acquittal on October 20, 2000. After his release, he traveled the country and the world telling his story and advocating against the death penalty.

“Some will say that William’s case shows that the system works,” Hoover said. “When a jury convicts and sentences to death an innocent man, the system fails. When a man loses six years of his life for something he didn’t do, the system fails. When a father loses his relationship with his daughter because he’s been wrongly imprisoned, the system fails.

“William’s case shows that government officials cannot be trusted with such awesome power.”

William’s health deteriorated after his release. He suffered medical complications due to problems that were untreated during his time in prison. In fact, as he told it, he was never informed of his condition by corrections officials.

When he was released in 2000, William was the third Pennsylvanian found to be innocent after serving time on death row in the modern era of the death penalty (post-1978). Since then, three more innocents have been exonerated. In that same time frame, the Commonwealth has executed three mentally ill defendants who gave up their appeals.

Pennsylvania has the nation’s fourth-largest death row with 224 condemned prisoners. The state also has the dubious distinction of having the second-highest minority death row rate at 69%. In 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias recommended a moratorium on executions due to concerns with bias against minorities and the poor. In 2004, Nicholas Yarris won his release from PA’s death row after a stunning 21 years in prison when DNA evidence proved his innocence.


Monday, October 03, 2005

Life means life

The New York Times yesterday focused on an issue of contention for many abolitionists- the severity of life sentences. The article focuses on the case of Jackie Lee Thompson of Tioga County, who was sentenced to life in prison in 1970 for the death of Charlotte Goodwin. Both Charlotte and Jackie were 15 at the time.

The Times uses a case where there is some gray area, largely due to Jackie's age at the time of the crime, but it zeroes in on what is a difficulty for many opponents of the death penalty. As a separate criminal justice reform issue, some abolitionists also oppose life without parole.

While CPA-A appreciates the compassion of these folks and recognizes that Jackie's case is one where greater consideration is needed, one fact is clear. If we are to abolish the death penalty, we must offer life without parole as an alternative. Those who support the death penalty do so largely for two reasons- fear and a need for retribution. LWOP offers them a feeling of safety and severity in the punishment. If we get wishy-washy about LWOP, we will not reach our ultimate goal.

In fact, in their book Who owns death?, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell argue that as the citizenry becomes convinced that life really does mean life, death sentences will decrease dramatically, leading us to a point where we may even have de facto abolition.

Pro-DP is pro-life?????

Supporters of the death penalty never cease to amaze. If you want to kill people because you want revenge, so be it. If you're naive enough to think it's a deterrent, go do some homework. If you're just plain scared, well, that's a shame, especially since politicians play on those fears, but we can all relate to the basic human emotion of fear. (Aside: Is fear an emotion or a state of mind?)

But one would be hard-pressed to claim that they support the death penalty because they are pro-life. And, yet, Kevin Elmer of the Springfield (MO) News Leader appears to do just that. In an op-ed from September 11, Elmer says the following:

In America we do love life. There are raging debates over the existence of the death penalty for those who commit murder.

From there, Elmer goes on to touch on a wide variety of life issues: abortion, stem-cell research, Americans with Disabilities Act, social programs to aid the poor, etc. At this point, it's hard to tell if he's suggesting a particular viewpoint or just laying out some of the life issues we face as a nation.

But then Elmer says this:

Americans may not agree on these laws and policies, but they are examples of the compassion and values of our country.

Huh? Am I just completely misreading this? Or is he actually suggesting that the death penalty is an example "of the compassion and values of our country"? Death penalty supporters are a lot of things, but I don't think "pro-life" is one of them.