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Convictions Twice Vacated, Pa. Death Row Prisoner Must Still Wait

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 18, 2015 2:08 PM

Zachary Wilson, a prisoner in Pennsylvania whose murder convictions have twice been overturned, will not yet be able to challenge a third prosecution. Before the court may hear his federal Rule 60(b) motion, Wilson must first exhausting his state court claims, the Third Circuit ruled on Monday.

Wilson had been convicted of two murders in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, only to have those convictions overturned decades later. He remained in prison for years, under arrest for the same murders whose convictions had just been vacated, but was not arraigned until 10 years later.

The Exhausting Judicial History of Zachary Wilson

Wilson was originally convicted for the murder for two fatal shootings, one at a bar and another at a craps game. He has remained on death row since 1988, when he was tried and convicted for the second shooting.

However, Wilson's public defender was able to get both verdicts overturned, convincing the court that neither trial was fair. In the first, African Americans had been excluded from the jury, while in the second, prosecutors did not disclose evidence that could have discredited a key witness.

Despite having both convictions vacated, Wilson remained in jail. The 2004 order vacating his murder conviction allowed him to be retried within 180 days. While he was still in jail, prosecutors recharged Wilson for the murders. Since Pennsylvania does not allowed murder suspects to be released on bail, Wilson remained behind bars.

10 Years in Prison With no Conviction

The 180 days given to retry Wilson quickly passed. It was not until 2010, five and a half years after his sentence was vacated, that Pennsylvania moved to retry Wilson. Two days after his arraignment, he filed a Rule 60(b)(6) motion. Rule 60(b) allows movants to seek relief from a judgment or order on the grounds of neglect, new evidence, and "any other reason that justifies relief."

Unfortunately for Wilson, his rule 60(b) motion raised claims not yet addressed -- that he was denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial. In the habeas corpus context, a petitioner must exhaust all available state remedies, the Second Circuit found. Wilson will now need to spend even more time in jail as his objections continue through the state system.

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