MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — An Alabama death row inmate reached a plea deal Thursday that makes him the second prisoner to escape the death penalty in the state in less than two weeks.
William Ziegler, 39, agreed to plead guilty to aiding and abetting in the slaying of Russell Allen Baker, and a Mobile County judge gave him credit for the more than 15 years he already has served in prison, Al.com reported (http://bit.ly/1FPh5P0 ).
Ziegler was convicted of capital murder in 2001 and sentenced to die for Baker's killing. Circuit Judge Sarah Stewart overturned Ziegler's conviction in 2012, indicating there were numerous errors and serious doubts about his guilt.
Prosecutors had said they planned to try him again, but Ziegler instead was allowed to plead guilty to the reduced charge to resolve the case.
During a hearing, Stewart urged Ziegler to resist turning bitter and said she knew he recognized God's grace.
"I want you to appreciate that gift," she said. "You need to be very careful with your gift. ... The world is a very different place than it was 15 years ago when you went to jail."
The decision came less than two weeks after another condemned Alabama prisoner was freed after claiming he was innocent.
Anthony Ray Hinton was released April 3 after nearly 30 years on Alabama's death row for a pair of killings in Jefferson County. Prosecutors in that case dismissed charges in the 1985 gunshot deaths of two fast-food workers after new testing on the defendant's gun could not prove that it fired the fatal shots.
Baker's body was found in a wooded area in Mobile County in 2000. Authorities said Ziegler had quarreled at a party, and Ziegler was convicted along with three accomplices.
But a key witness who claimed Ziegler had threatened Baker later recanted, helping lead to Stewart's decision to overturn the case.
With his plea, Ziegler acknowledged that his conduct helped lead to Baker's death.
Relatives of both Ziegler and Baker, from Bayou La Batre, came away from the hearing disappointed.
O'Della Wilson, the defendant's mother, said she is happy that he will go free but angry that he had to plead guilty to any crime.
"He had no choice but to go ahead and plead to a murder he did not commit. ... Judge Stewart's the only one who has given us any justice," she said.
Baker's relatives weren't happy Ziegler would be released.
"He's a menace to our society. He will be back," said Beth Johansen, the victim's aunt. "This is not justice for our nephew."