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.



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