"Being their voice to expose injustice"

Exonerated And Freed After Six Years On Death Row

Last year, William Nieves became the 89th person since 1973 to be found innocent and freed from death row.

At last November’s Committing to Conscience conference in San Francisco, he talked to Alice Kim about his ordeal with the criminal justice system.

What is the story of your conviction?
My journey to death row began in September of 1993. I was in prison for a simple violation of probation for a drug offense. I had never been in prison before. Then two days before I was supposed to be released, I was picked up by Philadelphia homicide detectives. They told me I was being arrested for the killing of an African American male.

We went to trial in the summer of 1994. My trial lasted only two-and-a-half days. They used the testimony of a 34-year-old woman who admitted to being a prostitute and a crack user. She also had five outstanding fugitive warrants.

She initially told police officers that the perpetrators were two Black males from the neighborhood [Nieves is Puerto Rican]. Then she eluded police. The police claim that they didn’t find her again until nearly a year later. When they caught up with her again, she selected my photo out of a total of eight. The pictures were very dark. You could think I was African American.

She said she observed me from nearly 70 or 80 feet away in the dark, and that she was able to positively identify me as the shooter. This witness was the only thing they had -- besides the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who said that he observed me at a lounge two blocks away with the deceased. He claimed that he heard me say ‘You better get my f----- money.’ This is the kind of information that the prosecutors used.

Were you shocked that you were convicted?
The police department doesn’t like to see murder cases go unsolved. In Philadelphia, you have a DA who’s very politically motivated in running her office. She’s not going to jeopardize her reputation. She allows prosecutors to do whatever it takes to get a conviction.

And that’s the sad part about Philadelphia -- police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct have all been overlooked. And it’s a shame.

Do you think wrongful convictions are common?
I’m convinced that at least three individuals who I have come across on death row are innocent. The prosecutors in Philadelphia have the most death penalty convictions in the state of Pennsylvania. There are 134 on death row from Philadelphia County out of 236 in Pennsylvania.

During my retrial, we discovered that the prosecutor withheld the identity of an eyewitness who told police and prosecutors that the shooter wasn’t me. His testimony was consistent with the ballistic evidence and the initial testimony of the other witness. On top of that, an alleged FBI informant spoke to the police and gave the identity of the two shooters. But this was also suppressed during the original trial.

Can you describe the experience of being an innocent man on death row?
I spent six years on death row, a total of eight years incarcerated. I suffered from severe depression and stress. I weighed 225 pounds when I was arrested. In two years, I went down to 165.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t socialize. I was so frustrated that I could get convicted on the testimony of one unreliable witness.

What do you think about the criminal justice system?
I learned that the criminal justice system is not operating the way that it should. Look at Illinois -- 13 individuals have been exonerated there. In Pennsylvania, you have two individuals other than me who were wrongfully convicted. I totally disagree with the idea of the death penalty, because the taking of life should be the judgment of God, not man.

How did it feel to finally win your freedom?
They waited three days after I was acquitted to let me go. Still, I wanted to kiss the ground -- but it was too dirty.

My brother picked me up right outside the prison. I thought there would be reporters and cameras, but there was no one but me.

I have to admit that I was no saint prior to my arrest. I sold drugs. I used drugs heavily. I did a lot of stupid things. But I didn’t rob or shoot or kill anybody. I didn’t deserve to be on death row.

But it’s made me a totally different person. I’m at peace with God. I’ve devoted my life to Him, and I’ve devoted my life to this cause of stopping executions. I made this promise to many who are on death row -- that I would come out and I would fight and be their voice and expose the injustices that have been done to them.