Author Archives: Joan Treppa

An Unearthing of Ghosts…

A fitting day to share this chapter from my book; triumph that instilled an uncommon but short lived dose of hope and possibilities…

Chapter 33

Legal Woes for the Opposition

Halloween, October 31, 2014. A fitting day to illustrate an unearthing of ghosts still lurking through the halls of the Brown County Courthouse. Finally, twenty-one months of effort put forth by a dedicated legal defense team came to fruition when they filed a 152-page motion, more than one hundred exhibits, and several affidavits in Brown County requesting an evidentiary hearing for Keith Kutska. Close to twenty years later, this small Midwest town was thrust back into legal upheaval.

There was a flurry of news reports on local TV stations and in print. One Green Bay Press-Gazette headline read:

“Defense: Monfils Death a Suicide. New Legal Team Seeks to Have Conspiracy Conviction Thrown Out.”

Read the news article here.

When this motion was filed, Johnny and I took great satisfaction in knowing we had played a monumental role in its inception. The families were hopeful. We all felt great about it because there was real progress being made. And our miracle was a kick in the legal shins for Brown County. They most likely never expected we’d get this far or that this case would actually make it back into the courts. But there it was. I imagined the clambering behind closed doors to keep their wits about them because the further this moved forward, the more media attention they’d receive. There’d be no escaping public scrutiny or the tough questions that followed. And it’d be a cold day in hell before those questions stopped. This was no longer merely a movement of family members, close friends, and two crusaders from Minnesota. This motion was spearheaded by a respectable law firm armed with an unrelenting dedication and ability to keep on keeping on.

The main points listed are directly from the original 152-page brief, and are as follows:

  • Defense counsel provided ineffective assistance by conceding the State’s homicide theory without consulting an independent forensic pathologist and investigating the evidence of suicide.
  • The State denied Mr. Kutska due process by relying on erroneous forensic pathology, and perjured fact witness testimony.
  • Mr. Kutska has presented “sufficient reason” for this motion.
  • The court should vacate this conviction in the interests of justice.

These excerpts are taken from this same document. They reveal major aspects of a failed investigation in a massively flawed case:

At approximately 7:42 a.m. on November 21, 1992, Tom Monfils—despondent, shamed, and angry—left his work area at the James River Paper Mill and walked toward an entrance of a nearby airlock passageway. As he neared the airlock, he picked up a 49 lb. weight and proceeded through the airlock. He then entered a storage area where his jump rope was hanging on a railing. With both the rope and weight in hand, Monfils walked to a large vat containing approximately 20,000 gallons of liquid. There, he climbed the steps to the top of the vat, tied one end of the rope around his neck and the other end to the weight, and entered the vat where he suffered traumatic injuries and died from drowning in the liquid.

Courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

After a 2 1/2 year investigation, Kutska, and five other mill workers were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison for Monfils’ death. The prosecution’s theory was that after Kutska had learned that Monfils had reported him to the police for stealing a piece of electrical cord from the mill, Kutska fomented “an angry mob” of his “union brothers” that viciously beat Monfils at a water bubbler (water fountain) at approximately 7:45 a.m. and then disposed of his body in the vat at approximately 7:50 a.m. on November 21, 1992. That theory embraced the conclusions of the medical examiner Dr. Helen Young, who concluded that Monfils had been beaten and then placed in the vat where he died.

Dr. Young’s homicide determination was, however, erroneous and rested on a series of provably false assumptions, as well as her ignorance regarding the engineering design and operating factors impacting the movement of Monfils’ body in the vat. As forensic pathologist, Dr. Mary Ann Sens states in her report, Dr. Young also lacked any scientific or medical basis for reliably and accurately determining that Monfils’ death was the result of a homicide and not a suicide. Indeed, there is ample and compelling evidence that Monfils had taken his own life.

Unfortunately, residents and law enforcement officials in Green Bay remained unwilling to appreciate the implications surrounding the firm’s findings that support a possible suicide. This first round of filings caused the county to push back…hard. They resisted the notion the case had been mismanaged. They remained as steadfast as ever in a dying effort to uphold all of these convictions, including Mike Piaskowski’s, in spite of his exoneration in a federal court. At every opportunity, John Zakowski defends the biggest case of his career with toxic statements that still fuel a vengeful public. Afterward and in present day, his most vicious attacks are aimed directly at his worst nightmare come true. In reference to the release of Michael Piaskowski he flatly states, Michael Piaskowski “was not exonerated,” rather, he was “mistakenly let go” due to a poor appeals argument by the attorney general’s office. And in a recent interview he did for a documentary about the Monfils case, Zakowski stated, “People tend to say, ‘Well, it’s only circumstantial evidence.’ Circumstantial evidence is many times stronger.”

Euphoria diminished as we waited and waited for a reply from the State. When the State did finally respond, it was as expected. In their response, they argued against every measure of the firm’s brief. However, it was again the defense team’s turn to have one last say in the matter before a final decision was to be reached. The firm was ready. They filed their reply brief earlier than the allotted time…

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A Note of Thanks…

Blaine High School. Photo courtesy of BHS FB page.

Hello Blaine High!

I’m posting a brief note to recognize and thank the amazing students we met from the three Criminal Justice classes at Blaine High School this past month.

In our mission to highlight wrongful convictions we are proud to educate young adults like you because you represent the future. You will lead this country and based on your prior experiences and knowledge, you will be the ones making the hard and important decisions for us all. Johnny and I appreciated your questions, your willingness to listen, and your patience as we navigated together through a disheartening topic–discussing your impressions of the Monfils case, aspects and flaws of eye-witness identification, cross-racial identification, and forensic science. We were especially touched by and will always remember the personal stories some of you shared as well.

Most of all, we are honored to have met you and we hope the information we presented will be useful as you build your futures. We invite you to stay connected and follow along as the legal process in the Monfils case continues. Please feel free to reach out to us through this site with additional questions and comments.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t also thank teachers, David Bestul and Lance Pettis for inviting us. Awesome teachers like you enhance the education of your students by providing an array of topics from multiple viewpoints.

Best wishes to all and may justice carry you through the toughest of times.

Sincerely,

Joan and Johnny

In-class presentation. Photo courtesy of Michelle Richardson.

 

Setting the Example…

Currently, five innocent men; Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore, and Michael Johnson grow older…more weary…and beleaguered, as their time in prison continues.

We all make a difference…every day. We don’t realize it because often, the results are neither profound or earth shattering. But it’s a fact that the smallest of actions can have the greatest impact and become an example for those around us.

Awhile back, when I emerged from the shadows, compelled to devote my existence to fighting for the rights of six Wisconsin men, it not only ended up having a major impact on their lives…but on mine as well. Suddenly, my life held more meaning and was more focused. Although it may not have been my initial intention to take this specific path, it always was my choice to make. But I now think of it as more of a responsibility I had no choice but to embrace.

I believe this book, Reclaiming Lives; Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men, which I’m about to publish, will create a firestorm of support that could affect current legal actions. Certainly not because it’s the best literature ever written but because it embodies the very essence of what we as humans aspire to be—example setters.

To further my point, I wanted to highlight something noteworthy that resulted from a story I wrote awhile back. Exoneree, Michael Piaskowski, whom I consider a colleague and valuable friend, was compelled to post it on the site where the article appeared:

“Hello to everyone. As Joan Treppa noted [in this article]; after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to ‘life in prison’ for a crime that I did not commit, I was completely exonerated and ordered released by the United States Federal Court system; all of my citizenship rights restored. In simpler words, the United States ‘legal system’ worked for me. The system made a mistake. The system recognized the mistake. And the system corrected that mistake. I am again ‘free’ to pursue all the rights and liberties bestowed upon all United States citizens.

Unfortunately that very same legal system has failed the other five men in this case. We (the other five defendants and I) are ALL innocent of this crime. All six of us were convicted of an incident that never took place. I repeat: It never happened. Thomas Monfils’ death was caused in some other way. The Green Bay police investigators got it completely wrong. I do not know how Tom died, but I do know that it did NOT happen the way we were convicted of it happening.

2013 photo of exoneree Michael Piaskowski and Joan Treppa at benefit for Innocence Project of Minnesota.

That’s where wonderful people like Joan Treppa come in; to pick up where Justice Myron Gordon left off and, at least in this case, to continue the fight for true ‘Justice for Tom’.

With the help of John Gaie, Denis Gullickson, Johnny Johnson, Steve Kaplan and Cal Monfils; and organizations like the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, The Innocence Project of Minnesota, The Wisconsin Innocence Project, and the Family and Friends of Six Innocent Men group here in Green Bay; collectively, we fight this just cause. It’s the American way. On behalf of the wrongfully incarcerated everywhere, thank-you Joan, for your dedication and perseverance. — Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski

Here’s the link to the story (which was posted in an earlier blog).

An update: Please help me spread the word. Signed copies of my book which addresses this unjust case are now available for pre-order. The book is currently discounted at $12.95+ shipping). This link takes you to a FB page to access the ‘Shop Now’ button (located in the upper right corner). Books will be shipped when they become available.

I’m truly honored to have had your support along the way as I continue on a path to making a difference and being an example on behalf of these men and their families.