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Connections, Recognition, Opportunity and Highlights…

Each year, the annual Benefit for Innocence Gala for the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) promises to be better than previous ones. That certainly was the case this time around. On Thursday October 8, 2015, a small group of close friends and family members accompanied me for the fourth year in a row. It was held at The Depot in Minneapolis. The keynote speaker was Erin Moriarty; a CBS Correspondent for the weekly crime series 48 Hours.  Erin was quite approachable, engaging and genuinely sincere. What stood out for me was her compassionate stance on a mission she believes has everything to do with exposing real truths about how wrongful convictions occur. In her speech she talked about how her role affords her the chance to effectively help people. In some instances, having depicted wrongful conviction cases in the program has actually helped change the outcome in a positive way after the story aired. Erin’s overall message was one of personal fulfillment and the provision of hope for those whose stories have yet to be told.

CBS Correspondent Erin Moriary

Keynote Speaker Erin Moriarty

Erin was involved in a 48 Hours segment that aired on March 29, 2014 called, Last Chance, regarding the wrongful conviction of Damon Thibodeaux. Damon was in prison for sixteen years, fifteen of them on death row for a crime he did not commit. His sentence was carried out at the Angola Prison in Louisiana.

Because of that story, Erin has a direct connection with Attorney Steve Kaplan who is on the Board of Directors for the IPMN and was part of the legal team that worked on Damon’s case for twelve years. During that time Steve was Damon’s legal counsel and mentor and in 2012 when Damon was finally freed from prison, Steve was the one to pick him up at the prison gates. Together the two of them drove back to Minneapolis in Steve’s rental car. Steve had convinced Damon to move away from Louisiana and in with he and his wife until Damon could manage life as a free man. This amazing display of compassion prompted the IPMN to award Steve with the ‘Never Forgotten’ award, with Erin there as a witness. Steve, being the humble soul, agreed to accept it only if he wasn’t expected to give a speech. So when Steve accepted the award, he uttered a quick “thank you” and exited the stage to the sound of deafening applause. I am proud to be affiliated with Steve (for three years now). He’s the attorney representing my friend Keith Kutska; one of the five innocent men I advocate for in the Monfils case. I have the authority to say that Steve has since shown the same dedicated compassion towards Keith as he did with Damon. Here is a short clip of the noble work he does for his clients on YouTube.

Exoneree Damon Thibodeaux with Attorney Steve Kaplan

Exoneree Damon Thibodeaux with Attorney Steve Kaplan. Photo courtesy of the IPMN

A new friend who attended the gala with us is Allison Lee.  Allison’s brother David is currently serving a life sentence for murder and has been in prison for 29 years. Allison believes he’s innocent and has become more involved in her brother’s case in the past few years. She contacted me after learning of my letters to David since 2013. She wanted to set up a meeting to discuss his case. The meeting was held at my house with my associate Johnny Johnson; a retired private investigator. Allison had mentioned she wanted to contact one of the weekly TV series that covers cases like her brother’s so I arranged for her to join us at the gala. She was amazed at the coincidence and excited about the prospect of sharing her brother’s story with Erin Moriarty face to face. She took full advantage of her good fortune that evening. Erin was quite receptive to Allison’s pleas but added that she could not make any promises regarding the possibility of covering David’s case. All that mattered to Allison that evening was this rare opportunity.

Allison Lee, Joan, Clare Martinson, Erin Moriarty and Michael Piaskowski

Allison Lee, Joan Treppa, Clare Martinson, Erin Moriarty and exoneree Michael Piaskowski

Other friends joining us from Wisconsin were; exonerees Mario Victoria Vasquez and Michael Piaskowski and friend and author, John Gaie. My sister Clare Martinson also drove from Wisconsin with my niece Jordan Teague. Other friends in Minneapolis who attended were, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett, Sue Stang and hubby Jeff Johnson, exoneree Audrey Edmunds and her new beau Dave Anderson. We also met Sascha Matuszak, a multimedia journalist who recently connected with Mario and I and expressed a desire to learn about wrongful convictions. It was fun to reconnect with friends I don’t see often such as Erika Applebaum; former Executive Director of the IPMN, MN exonerees Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee and their wonderful families.

Mike,Joan, Jordan,exoneree Mario Vasquez and Clare     Mike and Joan Treppa, Jordan Teague, Mario Victoria Vasquez and Clare Martinson   

Exoneree Mario Vasquez, author John Gaie and exoneree Michael Piaskowski                 Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez, author John Gaie and exoneree Mike Piaskowski.

Dave with exoneree Audrey Edmunds

Dave Anderson and exoneree Audrey Edmunds

Some of you will recall that I met local reporter/attorney Ted Haller from Fox 9 news at last year’s gala and that the story he did earlier this year about our Wisconsin case was up for an award. http://www.fox9.com/archive/1826477-story Although Ted’s story did not win, his sentiments to me in that regard included having the ability to help people as a first priority. Ted was emcee at the gala again this year so he took the opportunity in the first few minutes of his speech to mention me by name and to share his aspirations to continue to do stories like mine. He also voiced an appreciation of having people like me on the front lines to create them. It was very touching. Ted’s praise also prompted my husband to tell me how very proud he is of me, which was the most amazing highlight of  the entire evening!

Emcee Ted Haller

Emcee Ted Haller 

Here’s a WCCO Ch. 4 Interview with Erin Moriarty.

Here’s a brief piece of Erin’s speech at the gala.

Here’s a link to more info on the Monfils case, a compilation of related news articles, interviews and recent activities.

Ignoring Looming Threats…

The gates opened at 9 am. Rain clouds persisted as a procession with cars of all shapes, colors and models formed. Thunder rumbled in the distance but despite the looming threat overhead, the 3rd annual Hotrod Breakout Car Show/Benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project (IPMN) was about to begin. Adults and children alike were showing up in modest numbers to experience this unique event designed to create awareness about an issue that devastates families across the country. Rain clouds threatened to ruin our activities but the real threat comes from ignoring situations that ruin lives such as the lasting effects caused by wrongful convictions.

P1040788Triplets with baby sister in tow

A structured program commenced at 10 am. Brenda Kutska spoke first. She shared her family’s personal misfortune of dealing with a wrongful conviction. Her Father-in-law, Keith Kutska was wrongfully convicted along with five other men in 1995 of a murder they did not commit. Keith and four  others have been in prison for twenty years. There was no anger or malice, only hope in Brenda’s tone as she spoke of the many years her family has lived with no expectations of ever seeing freedom for Keith. Her ability to stay positive is due to renewed hope fueled by recent legal help for Keith. Each time Brenda paused to catch her breath, a respectful audience waited. Even as they heard about circumstances many of them could not relate to, their hearts were deeply touched. And after hearing about this type of injustice, something they never considered before, they applauded her candidness.

At 11 am it was time for me to try out a new platform-a 45-minute panel discussion with four exonerees; Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez from Wisconsin, and Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee from Minnesota. Julie Jonas, legal director for the IPMN would join me in introducing our exonerees, along with giving us a sense of what her organization does. There were a few sprinkles of rain in the air, but we proceeded as planned.

 P1040811

Joan Treppa, exonerees Audrey Edmunds (11)*, Mario Victoria Vasquez (17)*, Mike Hansen (6)*, Koua Fong Lee (3)* and IPMN director Julie Jonas

Julie introduced Mike and Koua; two exonerees whose cases she had worked on. She quickly summed up the lengthy legal processes to free them. I introduced Audrey and Mario. I shared their circumstances and how we had met. We touched on the experiences of all four; the initial crime they were accused of, life in prison, how they found help and what their lives are like now. There was laughter and sadness. There were pleas to stay cognizant that these injustices exists and the importance of supporting organizations like the Innocence Project. Before long, the clouds dispersed and the sun appeared.

P1040789

Exonerees Mario Vasquez and Koua Fong Lee 

Following the discussion at approximately 11:55, something unexpected happened. I was leaving the stage when a gentleman approached. He and his wife had been driving by on the highway when they spotted our event. They felt compelled to stop. The husband presented me with a challenge to match all donations raised by 12:15 up to $1,000! He asked that I make an immediate announcement. I signaled to Chuck, our DJ, to pause the music. As I waited I wondered if we’d come close to collecting that amount or if we would lose out on this opportunity. The crowd was small and I had my doubts. But I made the announcement and hoped for the best.

At 12:15 a handful of us counted; $100…$200…$300…and so on all the way up to $1,000 and then some! We had done it and this couple assured us they would be sending a check. Although they wanted to remain anonymous, we couldn’t help but gather around to thank them for their generosity.

P1040808Exoneree Mike Hansen with girlfriend Shaylee and son Keegan

Still excited about our great fortune, I prepared for the second and final panel discussion at 1 pm with Attorney Steve Kaplan and Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski. They were discussing the WI Monfils case. Mike is the only one of six co-defendants (including the previously mentioned Keith Kutska) to be exonerated. Steve has been actively pursuing freedom for Keith for the past two+ years. At the last minute I asked my good friend and colleague Johnny Johnson to join us for this discussion because he is the retired private investigator who aided in compelling Steve to take on this case. I gave a quick case summary and proceeded with the discussion. Mike Pie shared his personal experience as the accused. Steve talked about the legal process of representing Keith. Johnny shared his viewpoint as an outside investigator and explained the proper techniques of interpreting evidence, conducting an investigation and his personal observations about this case. Steve also discussed the recent hearing for Keith in July of 2015 and what to expect in the coming months.

P1040822Joan Treppa, Steve Kaplan, exoneree Mike Piaskowski (5.5)* and Johnny Johnson

Both panel discussions were very informative and eye opening for those who gathered to listen. Both elicited reactions of dismay in regards to our judicial system and empathy towards the victims present that day. I felt that what we were doing was making a difference and helping the victims heal just a little bit more by affording them this opportunity.

P1040795

Mario Victoria Vasquez with Julie Jonas and her children Sarah and Sam

Amenities included two food vendors and Jeff Lee of ‘Art For You’. Jeff promised to donate 15% of his earnings that day to our cause. He sold four pictures. Chuck Brost, our DJ for ‘Tunes To Go’ was amazing as always.

P1040810                            Route 65 Pub&Grub

P1040805 Tater Boss Tater Tots

I am pleased to report I received checks from both the couple and from Jeff Lee. I had also received additional personal checks in the mail prior to and after the show. We raised a grand total of $3,080.50 which exceeded last year’s total. We are thankful to General Manager, Sue Stang of Route 65 Classics (which will be renamed Unique Classics on 65 as of September 1st, 2015) for allowing us free access of their facility.

The show ended with numerous awards for the best cars. Plaques and trophies were courtesy of friends, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett. They were handed out by WI exonerees Audrey Edmunds and Mario Victoria Vasquez. To truly appreciate this incredible experience you’ll have to come to next year’s show. I hope to see you then…

P1040832                                Top 10 Award  

P1040834 Best in Show Award

* ( ) Total years of sentence each exoneree served.

           

                                                

“Hotrod Breakout”…a Benefit That’s Been Places…

I’d like to share my thoughts regarding the many dedicated people engaged in the planning of a third car show/fundraiser for the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Compassionate individuals who’ve supplied hours of enthusiasm and selfless efforts on behalf of those wrongfully convicted have again created an exciting and unusual venue where tragic but uplifting stories emerge. The event is designed to resurrect reluctant voices that have been judged, criticized, condemned and ultimately silenced. Some of those voices appearing at this year’s event are: Wisconsin exonerees Audrey Edmunds, Michael Piaskowski and Mario Victoria Vasquez and Minnesota exonerees Michael Hansen and Koua Fong Lee.

P1040195

 Joan Treppa (standing) next to exoneree Audrey Edmunds 

P1040223                                                             Exoneree Michael Piaskowski

P1040684                            Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez next to Johnny’s classic car

Mike HansonExoneree Michael Hansen

Exoneree Koua Fong Leeows_142302270498185

We will also hear from Brenda Kutska whose father-in-law is currently in prison for a crime he did not commit. Her views from the perspective of a family member is sure to stir hearts…

Two years ago we began to highlight the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN). This non-profit organization bridges the financial roadblocks of those innocently caught up in catastrophic legal woes in dire need legal assistance. We’ve combined our talents to create awareness and to solicit funds to further their mission and it is our hope that this event will eventually become a significant source of revenue for them.

P1040786Banner created and donated by Budweiser

I salute my special friends who make up the planning team; Johnny and Linda Johnson, Rosemary and Pat Bonnett, Tom Erikson (aka: EricVonSon), Chuck Brost, Jesse Hoffman and all the others who work with us each year to help make this event a success. Special mentions go to Trudy Baltazar who collected and donated numerous items for prizes given out during the day, the Bonnett’s for their willingness to provide printed programs and the super amazing car awards. We thank Chuck Brost of ‘Tunes To Go’ for keeping us ontrack with our daily schedule, making announcements with added wit between appropriate era music for the event. Let’s not forget our good friend, exoneree Audrey Edmunds, who will again energetically hand out prizes!

P1040230Exoneree Audrey Edmunds congratulating a classic car winner

A final salute goes to the staff at the Project here in Minnesota for the important work they do all year long. Executive Director Heather Ring, Legal Director Julie Jonas, Staff Attorney Marie Wolf and all of the law students and paralegals who make up the IPMN team are to be commended for their diligence and selfless commitment to providing an invaluable service to those less fortunate in their time of need.

Because the IPMN it is a non-profit, our success in aiding them is critical because much of their funding is reliant on funds from general public doners. We must never forget that these funds benefit individuals who’ve been reduced to being labeled as thugs, murderers and rapists, who, in reality, were part of a civilized society, striving for the same wants and needs as the rest of us. They were once independently responsible for their own lives before fate sent them down a much different path.

P1040202Julie Jonas, her daughter and son, Sarah and Sam with MN exoneree Sherman Townsend (from a previous car show)

It is an honor to actively work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, and we are again proud to present the one and only… (drum roll) ‘Hotrod and Motorcycle Breakout’; 3rd annual benefit for the Minnesota Innocence Project! We are furiously getting ready to host this exciting event on Saturday, August 8th 2015 from 9 am to 3 pm. We’ve adjusted our schedule a bit this year. Instead of conducting single speeches by exonerees and advocates, we are inserting two panel discussions; one at 11 am and the other at 1 pm. We believe this format will provide an informative and educated interaction for our audience.

 

Car Show Flyer - 2015

Flyers distrubuted at other car shows

Finally, I would like to commend Route 65 Pub and Grub owner Brad Slawson and Manager Kathy Sauvageau for providing mouth-watering refreshments during the day and Route 65 Classics (under new ownership as Unique Classics) owner Gene Kohler and General Manager Sue Stang who’ve enthusiastically provided their space free of charge each year. Both businesses have made generously donated additional funds to our cause and both are already getting ready for our big day!

P1040472Kathy and Brad setting up their booth 

We hope this event will be especially successful this year and that it will go down in history as the best car show ever…one that will help drive this wrongful conviction issue back into nonexistence!

Please join us or donate to the IPMN today!

Thanks!