Category Archives: Featured Exoneree

A New Chapter…

Meeting someone who’s been in prison for a crime they did not commit is very humbling. But observing within them, an attitude more positive than many of us not affected by our judicial system, is surprising…and noteworthy. Mario Victoria Vasquez is such a person. He is conscientious, thoughtful, kind, patient and grateful for his new found freedom and for the outpouring of support he has received through his terrifying ordeal. Mario is also proud. He harbors anger because of what happened to him but he does not let it dominate his overall temperament despite these past circumstances…

“On February 5, 1998, the parents of a four-year-old girl took her to the St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green bay, WI because she had been complaining for two days of pain while urinating. The girl told a nurse that “Mario” had touched her. Based on a physical examination which revealed sores and vaginal irritation, hospital staff determined the girl had been sexually assaulted. A swab was taken and tested positive for genital herpes. The girl’s mother believed she was referring to 34-year-old Mario Victoria Vasquez, the babysitter’s brother-in-law who lived at the babysitter’s house. However, the uncle had disclosed to authorities that the girl sometimes referred to him (the uncle) as “Mario”. A Green Bay Police Detective questioned the girl alone. According to him, she volunteered that she had been touched by her uncle, father and babysitter’s husband as well, but on February 6, 1998, Vasquez was the one arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault of a minor. Tests were never performed to determine where the disease originated from and the defense counsel was negligent in requesting that an expert be called in to debate; (a) the validity of the testimony of a four-year-old; (b) her obvious confusion of the facts throughout the process, (c) evidence of interviewer bias.  

Mario had served close to seventeen years of his twenty-year sentence, all the while, maintaining his innocence. He was unexpectedly released from prison on the evening of Friday, January 30th, 2015 after a hearing earlier that day to request a new trial. The assault victim, now an adult, had finally come forward to disclose who her true assailants were.

Although this was reason enough for Mario to celebrate, the circumstances surrounding his actual release were not. Mario walked out of the Brown County jail in the middle of a chilly wintry night…alone. He was equipped with inadequate clothing–a light jacket, no hat or gloves, and no means to contact a family member to pick him up. He was forced to go back into the jail to ask if he could use their phone. It was sheer luck that he remembered his son James’ phone number.

P1040662

 

Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez and Joan Treppa

Up until the present, I had only known Mario through letters. We had corresponded since August of 2013 because of a conversation I had with his ex-wife, Darcy. Both Darcy and my sister Clare live in Green Bay and were friends at the time. Darcy became upset one day while the three of us chatted at my sister’s house and I brought up my recent involvement in the Monfils case. “I cannot be concerned over that case when no one cares that my ex-husband Mario also sits in prison for a crime he did not commit.” she said. “Tell me about him,” I said. Our conversation prompted me to start writing to Mario.

I told my sidekick, Johnny about this case and he did an investigative evaluation of the facts. He confirmed that Mario’s case was fraught with the same kinds of issues and inconsistencies as the Monfils case and we found out that the same prosecutor and assistant DA worked on both cases within a few years of each other which sent up red flags. Mario was already under the guise of the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) by then and though he felt discouraged because of how long it was taking to get his case through the courts, I encouraged him to give them time. I assured him that they were doing their best for him.

The essence of Mario’s letters embodied the utmost respect. He struck me as an educated and well versed individual. I sensed he was hard working and motivated to continue on with a productive and meaningful life. He had maintained integrity despite his misfortune. His letters were similar to reading poetry. In them, he shared acts of kindness toward other inmates through mentoring and friendship. The more I learned, the more I looked forward to eventually meeting him. 

Then on the evening of Tuesday, February 10, 2015, I came face to face with my pen pal. For a moment, Mario and I stood there, staring at each other as though this was a dream. We marveled at the ability to share a handshake, a joke, laughter, tears and a hug. Still, Mario’s fate hung in the balance. There was a hearing the following day to determine whether or not this nightmare was over. Although I was optimistic, Mario would not be at peace until he received word from the Judge that he was absolved of all charges. There was an edginess in his temperament. I did my best to grasp what he was feeling and I reassured him that no matter what, I would stand by him.

P1040659

A Family Reunited; Darcy, James and Mario

My sister Clare hosted this gathering of close friends and family on Tuesday evening. Darcy, their son James and James’ girlfriend, Sarah, were present. It was the first time this family had been together since Mario was charged in 1998. We all savored the moment…that evening…this miracle.

P1040657

Exonerees Mario and Mike “Pie”

We had also invited Michael “Pie” Piaskowski, the exoneree from the Monfils case, along with his girlfriend, Teresa. Mike Pie and Mario became fast friends. They sat together, sharing individual stories. Many emotions were felt that evening; anger, sadness and disgust for a system gone awry. But we focused mainly on new possibilities and an optimistic future for Mario, Mike Pie and for the many innocent people in prison who have yet to be vindicated.

WIP attorney's Cristina, Katie, Kyle and Curtiss

Mario (center) with WIP Attorneys; Cristina, Catie, Kyle and Curtis

The next day, the hearing for Mario commenced at 1:30 pm in room 200 of the Brown County Courthouse. Cristina, Mario’s lead attorney from the WIP had mentioned that the proceedings would be brief so we arrived early. Mike Pie, Clare, Darcy and I waited in the hallway with approximately 25 of Mario’s family members. Excitement grew when the innocence project team walked in. Their presence lent a sense of comfort and excitement similar to the climax of a tense western film when the cavalry rides in to save the day! Mario was ecstatic to see all of us. This was his moment. We were his bravado!

We all entered the small courtroom. We sat and waited. In walked the former Brown County Assistant District Attorney, Larry Lasee, with a sour look on his face. He kept his gaze lowered as he sat in his designated chair and began scribbling furiously on the notepad in front of him. We rose and settled in again after Judge Hammer entered. Cristina rose and began by defending Mario’s innocence. Mr. Lasee clarified his view in regard to Mario’s absolute guilt. He then added that the DA’s office would not be pursuing a new trial in this matter. The Judge displayed a puzzled look and defined the series of events prompting this hearing-that Mr. Lasee had, in fact, interviewed the witness, now an adult, who disclosed the true identities of the perpetrators. I could not make out the muffled response by Mr. Lasee but I had heard all I needed to. It was clear. There would be no more prison time for Mario. He would be free to rebuild his life.

The last thing we heard was what we, as supporters, had hoped for. The Judge looked at Mario and said,”Mr. Vasquez, you are free to go.” We clapped loudly as Lasee quickly found his way to the door. Now it was time to focus on Mario’s transition. It was exhilarating to think that what had started on paper for the two of us was about to continue on with a new chapter in living…

Find a detailed description of Mario’s story here:

Unintentional Losses…

How many times have we seen car ads that boast about this feature…?  From zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds!

This type of maneuvering has been proudly embraced by car manufacturers for years as a top selling point over other makes and models. But truth be told, no other car manufacturer has anything that surpasses the capabilities of a Toyota Camry! Certain model year Camrys can go from zero to ninety in as much time and they have a track record to prove it.

I’m just speculating but based on this news report from a recent class action lawsuit in a Minneapolis courtroom which has garnered much attention nationwide, exoneree, Koua Fong Lee, former owner of a 1996 Toyota Camry along with the family of the deceased victims of an Oldsmobile Ciera, would probably agree that this is not a factor to be celebrated. In fact, they have asked Toyota, Corporation to fix a serious problem of unintentional acceleration due to issues with the car’s electronic throttle mechanism so that it does not cause harm to any more lives.

“Lee was driving his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, and his father and brother home on June 10, 2006, when he exited Interstate 94. As his Camry accelerated, he sideswiped one car before hitting an Oldsmobile Ciera. Experts said Lee’s car was traveling between 76 and 91 miles per hour when it struck the Ciera, killing its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Trice-Adams’ niece Devyn Bolton, 7, was paralyzed and died 16 months later. The three who died were “complete innocents,” said attorney Bill Markovits, who is representing the Trice-Adams family. “We ask you to hold Toyota fully liable,” he said.”  Star Tribune, Jan. 8, 2015

Despite numerous other drivers of the same make of Camry, who have come forward because of experiencing sudden unintentional acceleration-the same issue that Lee insists caused his crash, Toyota stands by its assertion that the fatal crash in 2008 that killed three people and sent Lee to prison for 2.5 years, was solely due to driver error. Part of their argument during the recent hearing states that Lee was an inexperienced driver and that he had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. They also argued that his 1996 model was not involved in a future recall event that dealt with the very problem he experienced.

ows_142077539691923

 

Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry. Photo courtesy of Star Tribune, Mpls, MN 

“Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007. A massive recall of newer Toyota models because of problems with sudden acceleration, starting in the fall of 2009, prompted attorneys to reopen Lee’s case. Ramsey County prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in 2010. The 1996 Camry was not among the vehicles recalled. Lee and four family members who were passengers in the Camry joined with family members from the Oldsmobile in a suit against Toyota.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

ows_142302270498185

 

Koua Fong Lee at a press conference in Mpls following a jury verdict. Photo courtesy of the Star Tribune, Mpls, MN

“Trembling as he spoke, and occasionally lifting a tissue to his face, Lee said, “I tried to rebuild my life, but it is very difficult to move on. I am very sad. I want to apologize to the other families” who had members killed or injured. “Every day I think about that accident,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “Many lives lost.” Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2015.

“Toyota’s attorneys appeared to be caught off guard. Driver Koua Fong Lee lost control of his 1996 Camry, said his attorney Bob Hilliard, because each time he tapped the gas pedal on the long exit ramp off eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue, the car accelerated.” Star Tribune, Jan. 29, 2015

This week’s outcome:

“Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $10.9 million in damages for the high-speed crash in St. Paul that cost the lives of three people and sent another man to prison, a federal jury decided Tuesday. Jurors in the Toyota liability trial found the world’s largest auto company 60 percent responsible for a 2006 crash that also sent a St. Paul man to prison for 2½ years. They found Koua Fong Lee, driver of the 1996 Toyota Camry that crashed into a stopped car at the top of an Interstate 94 exit, 40 percent responsible.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

My thoughts drift between deep empathy for both families involved in this terrible incident and what the answer is, as to the appropriate responsibility and duty of the nation’s largest automobile company. Personally, I had hoped that Toyota would have seen a clear and evident problem with their product, and that precious lives are still being destroyed because of it. It would have been prudent for them to take a more compassionate approach. They should have shown the world that their company is based on the highest standard of integrity, by putting their funds towards more in-depth research to get to the bottom of this issue rather than pay multiple attorneys to blame the victims.

Honestly, I believe that what will end up happening is that enough people will feel the same way as I and will seriously consider their next car purchase with this lawsuit in mind. Of course, there will be those who stand by Toyota no matter what because they like the product, but I think that in the long run, Toyota may have already caused their own demise which will likely affect their bottom line as well as their reliability, not to mention their unintentional loss of integrity.

Vroom  Vrooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom…………                                                                                                                 

images   

Disillusioned Crusaders…

John Grisham, a lawyer who practiced criminal law for about a decade is better known for his fictional stories that center on the complexities of our judicial system. In 2006 he published his first non-fiction story portraying an actual wrongful conviction case involving two friends, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. The book is called, The Innocent Man; Murder and Injustice in a Small Town about a tragedy that happened in Ada, Oklahoma in 1987. I felt the book characterized Mr. Grisham’s overall view of our “best system in the world”. From his perspective as a lawyer he talks publicly about becoming an author because of his disillusionment of the system and how, in his writings he can easily incorporate his ideals and reassemble the efficacy of a just system. In this book Mr. Grisham writes, “If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you.

In 2012, my friend Shirley learned that Grisham would be the keynote speaker at a Midwest Innocence Project Benefit Dinner in Kansas City, Kansas and it was likely that Dennis Fritz, one of the two men depicted in his book would also be there selling his recent book, Journey Toward Justice. I was interested in meeting both of these men because of their involvement in the Innocence Project-an organization that represents the wrongfully convicted. I quickly read both books to familiarize myself with Fritz’ story and Grisham’s connection to him. While reading, I was stunned at the many similarities this case had to our Wisconsin case!

From the beginning the evidence in the case against Dennis and Ron was non-conclusive. With no physical evidence, an overzealous prosecutor intent on winning relied on junk science and the testimony of jailhouse snitches and circumstantial data to create the illusion of guilt. Distorted statements, questionable hair evidence, dream confessions and other bizarre clues completed the prosecution’s circle of deception. Dennis was convicted after a swift trial. The vote of a single juror saved him from the death penalty and he was sentenced to life behind bars. But his co-defendant Ron was sentenced to death. Then luck found them both when they were exonerated in 1999 with the help of the Innocence Project. Through DNA testing the real killer was identified as one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.

Joan with exoneree Dennis Fritz and Dennis' Mom

Joan Treppa standing behind exoneree Dennis Fritz and his mother 

As we walked into the reception area I saw Mr. Fritz sitting at a table with stacks of books in front of him. Next to him was his mother who looked quite frail. The details of their story came flooding back. Dennis had served twelve years for the murder and rape of a young woman named Debbie Sue Carter. His mother had done all she could to help him. Through it all she had proudly stood by her son’s claims of innocence. I was convinced that her current ailments were caused largely by this ordeal and my heart wept for her especially. As Clare, Shirley and I introduced ourselves we were received graciously but I could not shake the shame of feeling intrusive. However, my intention to share the tragedy of five innocent men from Wisconsin compelled me to make acquaintances with Mr. Fritz and hopefully Mr. Grisham as well. My goal was to ask Mr. Grisham for help.

This mission preceded any connections with law firms and we were still desperate to find someone…anyone, who would understand that the Monfils case was flawed and that it warranted re-examination. I was in constant turmoil about having failed repeatedly and even though Clare and Shirley were with me at this event, I felt agonizingly alone in my urgency.

I asked Dennis about how we could meet Mr. Grisham. He suggested that we head over to the table where they’d be seated for dinner without delay, as soon as the doors to the dining hall opened. He could not guarantee much time with the author but said this would be our best window of opportunity.

While we chatted with others in the reception area, I lost track of the time and neglected to see the doors of the dining hall open. By the time I ran over to look, there were droves of people already surrounding Grisham, Dennis and his mother. I stood there helpless…feeling defeated. I conceded that this effort was futile and that these folks were not the ones meant to help.

Alas, persistence eventually paid off and our luck changed drastically the following year. A Minneapolis lawyer by the name of Steve Kaplan, notorious in his own right for his successful pro bono assistance to death row client Damon Thibodeaux, answered our call. And after two long years of studying every last detail of the case, he began the uphill battle of representing the supposed “ring leader” in the Monfils case, Keith Kutska.

Activities of recent years in the Monfils case.