Jacob Wideman up for parole: Is 25 years enough?

Two families agonize over whether he'll stay in prison or receive a second chance

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Jacob Wideman has paid a heavy price for the unprovoked killing of Eric Kane when they were both teenagers -- a life sentence, starting at age 16, with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

Now those 25 years are almost up, and the question is whether he has paid enough and deserves a second chance.

His victim's parents, Sanford and Louise Kane, are emphatic that he does not. Their only comfort since their son's murder was knowing that his confessed killer was in prison. Now that Jacob Wideman is coming up for parole in Arizona, where the crime took place, they are doing everything in their power to prevent his release.

Jake Wideman, now 41, is the son of John Edgar Wideman, the celebrated African-American author who has deep roots in Pittsburgh, and whose brother, Robert Wideman, is serving a life sentence for felony murder at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh.

Jake Wideman's parole hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. Depending on the outcome, he could become a free man on Oct. 3, the 25th anniversary of his sentencing.

The Kanes, of New York City, believe that would be a gross injustice to Eric, who never made it to 17. Given three weeks to rally support, they set up a website -- http://weremembereric.org -- and collected 200 letters about the impact of Eric's murder on his family and friends, urging the parole board to keep the perpetrator behind bars.

Letters have been sent, too, by Jake Wideman's parents, attesting to their son's rehabilitation and self-transformation from a troubled teen to a mature, caring adult who has proven himself ready to make something positive of his life going forward.

At Tuesday's hearing, the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency in Phoenix will look at Jake Wideman's psychiatric and prison records, the letters on both sides and listen to more testimony. The Kanes say they will be there in person, as they have been every step of the case.

Jake Wideman is expected to participate by speaker phone. His parents, reached via email, declined to comment. But on her Facebook page, Judy Goldman Wideman posted this message suggesting that people should not be judged solely by their bad acts: "We are more than the worst thing we have ever done."

Duane Belcher, head of the parole board, said its members will discuss the case at the public hearing and make a decision there. The outcome could go one of three ways -- parole denied, community supervision or release.

Even if parole is denied, Arizona law will make Jake Wideman eligible for parole hearings every six to 12 months for the rest of his incarceration. The Kanes say they will mount an opposition campaign for every one of them.

Baffling crime

Jake Wideman's crime drew national attention because it bore such chilling Shakespearean overtones.

His father, John Wideman, left Homewood to become a basketball star at the University of Pennsylvania, a Rhodes scholar and prominent literary figure. John's brother, Robby Wideman, stayed and became a habitual offender, finally committing a botched robbery during which his accomplice shot a man who later died.

John Wideman moved his own family as far as possible from Homewood and his convict brother. Their disparate paths are at the center of the author's acclaimed 1984 memoir, "Brothers and Keepers," which examines the two men's relationship through the lenses of family, memory and race. In it, John Wideman asked the questions that haunted the family in Robby's case and that returned with a vengeance in Jake's: How does one member of a family spin out of control? Was he born that way, did life do it to him or is the answer simply unknowable?

There was no inner-city upbringing for his own children. John Wideman joined the faculty of the University of Wyoming and moved to Laramie with his wife and their sons, Daniel and Jake, and where their daughter, Jamila, was born.

They were a close, high-achieving family by most accounts. The kids were all good students, good basketball players, polite and had friends. Laramie had a tiny African American population, but those who knew the Wideman children said their biracial status never appeared to be an issue.

Everyone else's path seemed to make sense. Judy Wideman typed her husband's manuscripts, raised her children, ran an alternative school and went to law school in her 50s. Daniel Wideman followed his father into writing. Jamila Wideman became a professional basketball player with the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA and in Israel, and then became a lawyer like her mother.

For Jake to have gone so far off the rails was beyond ironic. And it was beyond tragic that Eric Kane would die as a result.

Those who knew Eric said he was the last person in the world to provoke trouble. Friends said he was the consummate pacifist, possessed of an almost ethereal manner. A blood disorder had impeded his growth, and he struggled to complete tasks and to fit in. But he finally shot up to 6 feet, and through sheer force of will, he became a good student and won over the other kids. His last year at camp, he was voted the Camper Who Tried Hardest.

For his part, Jake seemed popular and well-adjusted but, in fact, was beset by private demons. He started shoplifting at 11, had fits of temper, acted impulsively and had trouble connecting with others. At one point he ran away from home for a week. His best friend said Jake felt he couldn't compare to his brother, and had said his parents likened him to his Uncle Robby. A psychiatrist who assessed Jake after the killing described him as "a kid in a rowboat out in the ocean, scared and alone, empty and frightened."

Both boys were 16 in the summer of 1986. They attended Camp Takajo in Maine, owned by Jake's maternal grandfather, Morton Goldman. A camp counselor took four of the teens on a cross-country trip, and on Aug. 13 in Flagstaff, Ariz., they checked into a motel where Jake and Eric shared a room.

During the night, Jake picked up the hunting knife he had purchased the previous day and stabbed the sleeping Eric twice in the chest. He then fled in the camp's vehicle, leaving his victim to bleed to death. Eight days later, accompanied by his parents and a lawyer, he turned himself in to Flagstaff police.

Jake was charged with murder in the first degree and released to his parents, by then living in Amherst, Mass., where his father had joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts. They put Jake in a mental health facility, and while there he called a Flagstaff investigator and confessed to killing Eric Kane, revealing no provocation or motive.

"I murdered Eric Kane," he said. "It was not premeditated. It was the result of a lot of different emotions. I had just woken up. It was 1 a.m. I didn't know what I was doing. I wasn't thinking straight. I was restless. I put on my clothes and I saw the knife and I saw Eric and I picked up the knife and stabbed him two times.

"I've had a really tough year, and he was the target of a lot of my emotions.

"I'm very sorry for what I did.

"I want to make one request, that whoever does this case makes a move not to have the death sentence applied. ... My life is in pieces and I think that with rehabilitation I can put it back together. ... I just want to say that I deeply regret what I did. ... I should be given a chance to live and to try to make something of my life."

Flagstaff prosecutors had him moved to the Coconino County Jail, where he tried to commit suicide and confessed to another murder, this one in Laramie. The victim in that case was Shelli Wiley, a 22-year-old engineering student at the University of Wyoming, who was killed 10 months before Eric Kane. She was hit over the head and stabbed multiple times and her apartment was torched.

Shelli Wiley's mother, Vicki Seifert, said Jake knew her daughter. Laramie authorities charged him with that murder but he later recanted, saying he was just looking for attention. The charges were dropped for lack of evidence, but Vicki Seifert still believes he did it. She and her husband, Frank Seifert, wrote a letter to the parole board, opposing any form of release.

On Sept. 9, 1988, Jake Wideman pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the slaying of Eric Kane as part of a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty. He told Judge H. Jeffrey Coker that he felt "deep regret and remorse. ... What would I do if I had one wish? I would bring back Eric Kane. I would not hesitate to give my own life if Eric could live again."

He also said he "felt helpless for the destruction I caused and I hate myself for it."

The judge sentenced him to 25 years to life, and said he should never be paroled.

"What makes this crime so difficult is that the 'why' has never been answered," the judge said.

Time in prison

Jake Wideman's prison record identifies him as a Caucasian male, 6 foot 1, 195 pounds with brown hair and eyes. It lists six minor infractions in 25 years, the last of these 11 years ago, for disobeying an order. The only major violation dates to 1993, for physical assault.

According to his work record, he has held a wide variety of prison jobs, from education aide and grounds keeper to library and administrative clerk. His mother's letter to the parole board says he earned a GED and associate business degree, has taken numerous other courses in the prison and helped other inmates in their course work. He also reads voraciously, she says, is a gifted writer and has spent much time with his fiancée, Marta DeSoto, thinking about how they would make a home together and face the future if he is paroled.

His father's letter said that Jake, incarcerated since age 16, "has virtually raised himself and become an admirable man today." If he is paroled, he wrote, "society will gain a solid citizen, a talented, resourceful, unusually intelligent man who is determined to prove his worth by contributing to the welfare of his fellow citizens. ... No longer a troubled teenager, not a danger to himself or others, Jake has become a good, responsible, wise adult. ... who deserves another chance to experience life beyond prison walls."

But the Kanes are adamant that justice and public safety demand continued imprisonment. Their letter to the parole board says Jake Wideman "was and is a self-serving monster," and dismisses as "ridiculous" all assertions of remorse and rehabilitation. Jake Wideman, they wrote, "robbed Eric of his future, his adulthood, his wife and children, his career, the joys of family celebrations and occasions. ... He absolutely cannot be paroled now, or ever. "

Mr. Belcher, head of the parole board, said it will take into account all the evidence.

"We look at the crime, the details and circumstances, also what's happened in the last 25 years with this individual, whether we feel that if released, he would be a law-abiding citizen. We look for remorse and anything else he has to say, his prison and discipline record, the programs he's taken, comments made by prison officials, any psychiatric or psychological reports made on him, and, if he's released, what is his plan. We look at all the letters, too."

Sanford and Louise Kane are now 69, with two surviving children and five grandchildren. They say they never stop missing Eric or thinking about the children he might have had if he had lived.

John Wideman, also 69, is now on the faculty at Brown University's departments of Africana studies and English. He and Judy Wideman divorced in 2000, after 35 years of marriage. Four years later he married French writer Catherine Nedonchelle.

Judy Wideman finished law school and went to work for a Massachusetts law firm. In 1999 she moved to Maine, location of the Goldman family's summer camp, and continued working out of her home on capital cases. She retired a few years ago, sidelined by an eye condition.

Her father, Morton Goldman, sold Camp Takajo in 1988. He died two years later, at 78, of heart disease.

In his letter, John Wideman wrote: "I remain appalled, bewildered, diminished by the fact that 25 years ago my son was responsible for taking another boy's life ... those excruciatingly cruel facts will never change." He also wrote of "the necessity for survivors to attempt to go forward after disaster strikes."

The Kanes insist that letting their son's killer go would be the ultimate insult.

"He got a life sentence and so did we," said Sanford Kane. "Ours isn't ever going to be up for parole."

Sally Kalson: skalson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1610.


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