Friday, October 14, 2005

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.


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