June 01, 2015

Sidley Austin Wins Release for Former Death Row Prisoner

On April 16, 2015, former Alabama death row prisoner William Ziegler was released from prison following nearly a decade of pro bono work by volunteer attorneys at Sidley Austin LLP. Sidley began work on Mr. Ziegler’s case in 2005, eventually winning a new trial in November 2012 and then successfully defending that decision in front of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.  In 2015, Mr. Ziegler agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his immediate release.

Mr. Ziegler was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001. Four others were charged in the same crime, but they all made deals with prosecutors, and some went on to testify against Mr. Ziegler. Eleven years later, Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart overturned Mr. Ziegler’s conviction because of “woefully inadequate” representation and prosecutorial misconduct. The lengthy legal process that culminated in this reversal was spearheaded by pro bono lawyers from New York-based Sidley Austin LLP. After Mr. Ziegler exhausted all of his appeals, Sidley took over his case and filed a petition for post-conviction relief. In the petition, Sidley attorneys outlined how Mr. Ziegler’s original defense attorneys failed to provide effective representation throughout his trial. Trial counsel never challenged the State’s theory, which was based on the flawed testimony of a single witness who was also charged in the case, nor did they conduct a proper investigation of the crime. In fact, one of the original defense attorneys threw away important forensic evidence that could have helped prove Mr. Ziegler’s innocence. At a post-conviction hearing, Sidley attorneys called numerous expert witnesses that undermined the eyewitness account that was central to the case against Mr. Ziegler. The attorneys also proved that the State withheld significant exculpatory evidence. As a result, Judge Stewart, in a 218-page opinion, vacated Mr. Ziegler’s capital sentence and called for a new trial.

The State appealed Judge Stewart’s order for a new trial. It argued that one of the case’s most important witnesses, who recanted during the earlier post-conviction hearing, should be discredited. But the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously sided with Mr. Ziegler and affirmed the circuit court’s order for a new trial.

Instead of risking a new trial, in which a jury could return an unfavorable verdict despite the many recent developments in his case, Sidley negotiated an agreement with prosecutors that allowed Mr. Ziegler to plead guilty to a lesser charge of aiding and abetting his co-defendants in exchange for a sentence of time already served. Before his release, Judge Stewart told Mr. Ziegler, “[B]e thankful for your gift of freedom. . . .  Your lawyers have worked so hard over the last seven years to free you. . . so please embrace God’s grace and freedom and be a productive, happy member of our community.”

Mr. Ziegler was the second former Alabama death row prisoner to be released since the beginning of April 2015, and the seventh since 1983. He intends to find work as a mechanic after his release. His wife, who he met and married after his conviction, said his release was “a dream come true.”

In 2014, Sidley received the Project’s Exceptional Service Award for their representation of Mr. Ziegler and many other death row prisoners in Alabama.  Sidley was the first law firm to receive this award twice, having also been recognized in 2006. The Project congratulates and thanks Sidley Austin for achieving this incredible victory for Mr. Ziegler and continuing its fight for justice for many other capital prisoners in Alabama.