Tag Archives: Green Bay Press Gazette

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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Brown County’s Last Comedic Stance…

In an earlier post, I mentioned that a ruling had been reached in the July 2015 evidentiary hearing for Keith Kutska. I also noted that on January 13, 2015, our lead attorney, Steve Kaplan, was contacted by a reporter from the Green Bay Press Gazette, looking for a comment on the ruling. At that time, Kaplan was unaware of the ruling because he had not been informed. The reporter kindly sent him a copy of the official document. Then came the second blow; a denial of further action in the matter. There was not going to be a new trial for Keith Kutska.

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My initial reaction was one of disbelief toward the blatant disrespect of Brown County. My second reaction bore mixed feelings as the reality of the situation set in. After thinking about it, this ruling was expected all along and the opposition was reacting with the same insolence they had displayed throughout the entire process. They were never going to acknowledge defeat. There was never going to be a new trial. Because that would suggest mistakes had been made and there was nothing to be gained by admitting to such incompetency.

However, this denial is not a bad thing for our men. Because of the way the hearing had been conducted, it was clear, even back then, it was never going to end favorably for Keith. In my opinion there seemed to be a tag team dynamic going on between the prosecutor and the judge during the entire ordeal. It was quite revealing to me and most unfortunate for Keith and his family. What was shameful was seeing the current prosecutor and the former Assistant DA involved in the original trial (a father and son team) both sitting at the same table during this hearing.

But in all reality, this ruling is encouraging.. It’ll take the case out of this biased town, away from this ridiculous progression of judicial recourse. It’s now headed for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. I believe that justice lies somewhere in the broader judicial spectrum. Proof of this lies in the first and only exoneration to date in this case which was granted to Michael Piaskowski in 2001 when his case landed in a federal court. A federal judge aptly cited the trial evidence as unsound and labeled it as “conjecture camouflaged as evidence.” It was a big stain on the prosecution’s pristine record.

Michael Piaskowski exonerated in 2001

Michael Piaskowski exonerated in 2001

Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

 

This document, in my opinion, epitomizes a wide gap between what’s right and what’s wrong with our entire legal process. I’ve been known to say that if these circumstances were not so tragic, they’d almost be laughable. After injesting the hypocrisy in this document, I rest my case.

Here is the complete 29-page document of the ruling from Brown County:

 

An Especially Glaring Implication…

On Wednesday July 22, 2015 in Green Bay, WI, former detective Randy Winkler, takes the stand at an evidentiary hearing for Keith Kutska-one of six defendants in the 1992 paper mill death of Tom Monfils. I’d like to point out the reason for this extended hearing date. Mr. Winkler had a vacation planned during the July 8-9 court dates and was given permission to take his leave despite being subpoenaed.

During the first phase of the hearing we heard testimony from witnesses that described his actions during the investigation. They resembled tactics far differently than what he describes in the video clip I’ve provided. On Wednesday, he will have the chance to clear the air, once and for all.

Green Bay Press Gazette

One final note: After the convictions were handed down and Mr. Winkler achieved success in solving the largest case to date in Wisconsin history, he disappeared into obscurity and was never heard from again…that is…until this whole case was revived close to two decades later…