Category Archives: Featured Exoneree

A Tall Order to Emulate…

On a recommendation from an exoneree friend, Michael Piaskowski, my husband Mike and I invited a distinguished stranger into our home in October of 2012. We were planning to attend a Benefit for Innocence in Downtown Minneapolis and it was suggested that we invite this exoneree. I looked into his case profile and found these details…

In June of 1989, a woman was kidnapped from her home, raped several times and abandoned along the side of a road in Bluff Siding, Wisconsin. Fred Saecker who was 6’3” tall and very thin with a full head of hair at the time, DID NOT fit the victim’s description of the attacker at all. However, since he was in the victim’s neighborhood around the time of the attack and (according to the summary I read) had been drinking they focused their attention on him. He was charged with burglary, second degree sexual assault and kidnapping. At trial a truck driver testified that he saw Mr. Saecker wearing a blood stained T-shirt and a forensic analyst testified that pubic hairs found on the victim’s body were “microscopically similar” to his.

Fred Saecker was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He would serve seven years of that sentence before DNA evidence would absolve him of the crime. I must clarify that last statement because of its significance. Four years into his sentence DNA proved his innocence but it took another three years for the authorities to sanction his release! Read on…

In 1993, Fred’s Mother paid for DNA testing. Although the tests concluded that he could not have possibly been the perpetrator, his request for a new trial was denied until 1996 when the District Attorney finally dismissed all charges based on this DNA evidence…  

Fred arrived at our house after a five hour drive from Wisconsin on the day of the benefit. He’s tall and thin making him mindful of hitting his head on the tops of doorways and low ceiling lights and fans in our home. He towered over both of us but his demeanor was nonintimidating. In fact, he was soft spoken and thoughtful. He expressed his gratefulness about being invited. Although Mike and I immediately grew fond of him, I also felt nervous. Not because of the accusations against him I believed were false but because I was very naïve about this whole exoneree experience and somewhat vague about the willingness of them to revisit past nightmares.

We had time to get acquainted with Fred before friends would arrive before the event. So we broached the subject of his wrongful conviction. We knew nothing other than a few details and what our friend Michael had told us about his character. Fred was open and honest about his experience despite this being our first encounter with him. I wondered how it was possible for the authorities to target him despite him not fitting the description of the real perpetreator. I also wondered how they managed to not get a sense of his true nature when it was so obvious to us. Ever since that little chat in our home, we knew that Fred would always be our friend. He has joined us on at least one other occasion and we’ve continued to stay in touch ever since.

I think in many ways, exonerees like Fred remain vulnerable to some degree, due to the lasting effects of their tragedies. They are keen when it comes to defining who is truthful and honest, but for some, the risk of being fooled by those whose intentions are tainted, is ever present. I am mindful of the mission I’ve been given and of the importance of not taking these people for granted or underestimating their emotional state. These days, I feel much more comfortable when meeting an exoneree for the first time but the humanity I feel by being in the presence of great courage and endurance, despite all odds, never goes away.

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Exonerees Koua Fong Lee, Audrey Edmunds, Fred Saecker, Damon Thibodeaux and Michael Piaskowski

Sometime ago, Fred sent me a thoughtful message stating, “Joan, you are incredible. I really mean that.” As accepting of those words as I am, from someone I admire very much, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best deserved accolades go to this gentle giant of a man who stands tall, not only in stature but in the wake of extreme misfortune.

A Promise Delivered…

In October of 2013, my husband and I attended a Benefit for Innocence, an annual gala hosted by the Innocence Project of Minnesota along with 20+ other supporters of the Wisconsin paper mill case. The Benefit was held at the (former) Graves Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis. I stood alone canvasing the reception room, touting a small white paper sack containing special gifts. I was excited but a little nervous, too. I had started preparing for this moment months ago. I’d made a solemn promise to deliver some precious cargo, in person that evening. I was on a mission to give these items to the keynote speaker-an exoneree and was determined to keep that promise.

I watched silently and nervously for the arrival of Brian Banks who suddenly appeared and was standing fifteen feet from me. The moment was at hand. This was my chance. I approached him and after introducing myself, I blurted out that I had come bearing gifts. His gracious look despite my awkwardness spoke volumes. I relaxed but only for a moment as I could hardly contain my excitement in showing him these treasures!

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 Joan Treppa with exoneree Brian Banks

To this exoneree my sincere gesture was appreciated and he was visibly moved. Brian Banks’ story is quite tragic. He ended up in prison because of a lie told about him by someone he trusted…

Brian Banks was accused, arrested and later charged with two counts of forcible rape and one count of sodomy with a special circumstance of kidnapping. The year was 2002. He was sixteen years old with a dream of a lifetime waiting at his doorstep. Brian was, “…a blossoming football star and had verbally accepted a four-year scholarship to play at the University of Southern California.”  But instead, he was falsely accused of rape. The only place Brian was going, was to prison, forcing him to postpone, even abandon any chance of pursuing a career in professional football. He was 26 years old when the California Innocence Project successfully aided in his exoneration in 2011. Brian actively tried once again to resume his football dream. He ultimately did not succeed.

People tell lies. It happens all of the time. But how does one reconcile being sent to prison because of one? 25% of all exonerations regarding a rape charge end up being resolved because the accuser knowingly makes a false statement and later recants. In this case the accuser admitted during a video-taped interview that she had lied. But not before Brian had served five years in prison. Never a thought was given to the consequences of her actions and what her accusations meant for him. After he was released, her aspirations were to reconnect and let bygones be bygones! And charges, perjury or otherwise, were never brought against her.

At the Benefit, Brian said he had spent a lot of time feeling angry over what happened to him. But he was unwilling to waste time on those emotions any longer. In fact, he can now be found working with the Innocence Project, helping other wrongfully convicted people regain their freedom. And he does it with the same passion as when he was cradling a football.

Oh, and what was in that little white paper sack that was so important? It was the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, which documents the Wisconsin case I advocate for. Accompanying the book were letters sealed inside five envelopes with return addresses from four separate Wisconsin prisons with the names and ID numbers of, Reynold Moore, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Keith Kutska and Michael Johnson, all addressed to Mr. Brian Banks…

What Is Mine Is Now Also His…

This month’s featured exoneree is one I met close to eighteen months ago. He’s my son, Jared’s age and was released from prison on my birthday in 2012. That day is now referred to as his day of rebirth so for both of us it holds plenty of meaning. I cannot help but contemplate how vastly different our reasons are for its significance but I am overjoyed to share this special day with such an admirable friend.

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Jared Manninen with exoneree Damon Thibodeaux and his girlfriend Veronika 

Damon Thibodeaux is the 300th person nationwide and the 18th from death row to be exonerated by DNA evidence. He spent 15 years on death row in Angola Prison in Louisiana for the rape and murder of a family member. He was under lockdown for 23 hours a day in a cell that measured roughly 6×9 feet at one of the toughest maximum security prisons in the United States. Damon’s story is extremely tragic and the circumstances leading to his incarceration are similar to those found in many wrongful convictions.

After being subjected to nine hours of questioning, Damon admitted he had raped and murdered the victim, even though he had not. It was later determined that the confession was the result of police pressure, exhaustion, psychological vulnerability and fear of the death penalty. Even so, the case against him had been built around that confession despite the discrepancies within his statement and the lack of physical evidence to prove the victim had even been raped.

Damon was also misidentified. A week after the crime, two women identified him in a photo line up as the man they saw pacing and acting nervously on the evening of the murder. They then pointed him out during the trial as the man they had seen. But when Damon’s case was later reinvestigated, it was revealed that the women had seen Damon’s photo in the news before police showed them the photo line-up and the date of the sighting turned out to be the day after the body was found when Damon was already in custody.

Damon shows no anger about his false imprisonment. During a news conference Damon stated that, “Being angry would be a waste of time because…I can’t get the sixteen years back. I have to keep focused on where I want to go and hope I can figure out along the way what I want to do. I can’t think about what could have been, but will be.”

My husband Mike and I have hosted Damon in our home many times along with other exonerees. Being around them inspires us to be thankful for the freedoms we have. Despite the horrors that Damon endured, we know him as someone who is genuinely kind and compassionate. Right after he was freed he was quiet and reserved. Now he has learned to live, love and laugh again. Sometimes when I see or think of him, I say a silent prayer of thanks; both for his good fortune and because what happened to him could have easily happened to Jared, given similar circumstances. I was excited when Jared and Damon had the opportunity to get to know each other late last year. What a priceless experience for any mother on her birthday…or any other day.

**Damon was one of a handfull of guests Mike and I hosted the evening his story was featured on the Saturday, March 29, 2014 segment of 48 Hours on CBS.