The life of William Ziegler, a 24-year-old roofer, was upended in 2000 when he was arrested for a murder in Mobile, Alabama. Ziegler found himself labeled as the “ringleader” when authorities determined that the victim had quarreled with someone at a party in Ziegler’s home. After a brief trial in 2001, Ziegler was convicted and sentenced to death.
Yet the facts didn’t add up. A herculean battle ensued to free him, and on April 16, 2015, Ziegler, now 39, was freed due to the talent of lawyers at Sidley who dedicated more than a decade to his case. Ziegler is one of many clients in Sidley’s Capital Litigation Project, which provides hope to inmates incarcerated on Alabama’s death row.
“We really had the perfect storm of a compelling case of innocence, grave violations by the state and ineffective assistance of counsel,” said Ben Nagin, a lawyer in the firm’s New York office, and member of the firm’s Antitrust/Competition and Commercial Litigation and Disputes teams.
Nagin, together with John Lavelle and Andrew Hart, along with many current and former associates of the firm, had been championing Ziegler in a pro bono capacity since 2005 in a post-conviction challenge. They, together with local counsel, Henry Callaway, conducted an evidentiary hearing in 2010, at which Sidley presented 25 witnesses and introduced 690 exhibits that supported Ziegler’s claims that: his court-appointed defense counsel had failed to investigate the case and ignored contradictions in the evidence; certain witnesses testified falsely at trial; state prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence; and two jurors provided false information during jury selection.
The team and Ziegler ultimately scored a victory in 2012 when the Honorable Sarah H. Stewart of the Mobile County Circuit Court overturned Ziegler’s conviction and sentence on 25 separate grounds of violations of his rights to due process, effective assistance of counsel and an impartial jury. The ruling was unanimously affirmed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in May 2014, which entered a judgment ordering that Ziegler was entitled to a new trial.
After Ziegler was released from death row, the State sought to retry him for capital murder, which, if convicted, carries only two possible sentences: death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, after the Court granted Sidley’s motion for discovery, the State was forced to acknowledge that crucial evidence from the case had been lost or destroyed, prompting Sidley to file a motion to dismiss. That motion was still pending when Ziegler accepted the plea bargain that allowed him to walk free.
So why did Ziegler, who had throughout the years maintained his innocence, plead guilty?
“I firmly believe that at trial the facts would have been overwhelmingly on our side,” Lagemann said. “But at the end of the day, you are left in the hands of 12 jurors. There is always a risk,” he added.
Both Nagin and Lagemann had gotten to know Ziegler, whom they affectionately call “Willie,” well over the years in their many visits to Alabama to help with his case.
“It was so important to him from the first day we met him that we believed in his innocence,” Nagin recalled. “He struggled with having to agree to the deal—to anything that implicated him in the murder. But he weighed that against the opportunity to go home.”
After Ziegler accepted his plea, Judge Stewart praised Sidley’s efforts, stating “[y]our legal analysis throughout this process has been infallible and your court room demeanor has been impeccable. I also recognize that you never allowed this to just be a legal battle. You always kept your compassion and your focus on the humanity of your client and I think that’s commendable.”
In addressing all of the lawyers involved in the case, Judge Stewart also said “[i]t’s really all y’all that are the heroes. Each of you stand for the very best of our profession. . . . I’m proud of each of you, and I’m sincerely humbled by your dedication to the goal of truth and justice.”