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Governor Commutes Sentence Of Prize-Winning Author's Brother

Courtesy of Laticia El
Robert Wideman, right, with his sister Laticia El and his niece, who has since passed away.

Gov. Tom Wolf has commuted the sentence of the brother of prize-winning author John Edgar Wideman in a 1975 killing, clearing the way for his release.

Robert Wideman was sentenced to life without parole in a case that was the subject of his older brother's 1984 acclaimed memoir, "Brothers and Keepers." The book was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award.

Wideman, now 68, was convicted of second-degree murder after participating in a 1975 robbery that resulted in the shooting death of car salesman Nichola Morena. Even though Wideman did not fire any shots, the felony-murder doctrine treats an accomplice to a felony that causes a death as a killer as well. The gunman was also convicted of second-degree murder, while a third accomplice was convicted of third-degree murder.

"He's elated," defense attorney Mark Schwartz said. "It's nice to have this finally accomplished and really humbling."

Years after his trial, Wideman learned that Morena's family had settled a malpractice lawsuit against the hospital that treated him. Wideman challenged his conviction on the grounds that the jury never heard evidence that Morena could have survived had he received proper medical care. But he never got a new trial.

The state Board of Pardons recommended clemency earlier this year following a hearing that featured testimony from a current judge who prosecuted the case and from the victim's sister. She opposed the clemency request, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Wolf on Monday cited the board's finding that Wideman had used his prison time "productively and largely without incident," had accepted responsibility, and "exhibits great remorse for the victim."

Wideman, considered "a low-risk for re-offending," plans to eventually live with family but under state law must live for a year at a Community Corrections Center, often referred to as a halfway house. After that, the governor's office said, he will remain on parole.

John Edgar Wideman attended the University of Pennsylvania and was only the second African American ever to be named a Rhodes Scholar. He was the first author to win the PEN-Faulkner Award for Fiction twice, in 1984 for "Sent for You Yesterday" and again in 1991 for his novel "Philadelphia Fire." He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2016.

In "Brothers and Keepers," Wideman ponders how he and his brother took such different paths, one leading to literary celebrity, the other to a life sentence.

"However numerous and comforting the similarities, we were different," the author wrote. "The world had seized on the difference, allowed me room to thrive, while he'd been forced into a cage. Why did it work that way? What was the nature of the difference? Why did it haunt me?"