Tag Archives: innocence

Down…But Far From Out…

Greetings and Happy New Year! One of my goals in 2017 is to remain optimistic that this will be an exceptional and unprecedented year for ongoing efforts regarding our five innocent Wisconsin men; Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore, and Michael Johnson.

There is much to be hopeful about despite a recent setback in our mission to request a new trial for one of those five, Keith Kutska. On December 28, 2016, we received word that Keith was denied justice as the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, barring him once again, the right to present new evidence in a new trial.

keith_kutska_during_1995_trial_gbpg

During trial in 1995. Photo Courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

Green Bay’s WLUK Fox 11 coverage included the following excerpt from that court’s decision:

“Kutska requests a new trial in the interest of justice. Because he failed to establish ineffective assistance of counsel or newly discovered evidence, that motion is procedurally barred. In addition, he has not established that the real controversy was not fully tried or that, because of trial error, it is probable that justice miscarried and a new trial would produce a different result.”

Here is the link to the entire Court of Appeals decision.

I’ll remind my readers that none of these men were granted separate trials to begin with, which in my opinion is a denial of a basic constitutional right. But let’s examine what I understand to be “the real controversy” in this earnest attempt to achieve justice; the idea that Tom Monfils’ death could have been a suicide. Those of us who support the innocence of all six men believe there’s plenty of evidence to show that suicide is a plausible explanation of what happened to him. We may never fully understand the scope of the circumstances leading up to his death but the science, the witness testimony, and the human interaction that occurred at the mill on that day in 1992, support this theory.

I believe the dominant reason for the resistance by the courts to allow progress in this case is pride. Simply put, they don’t want to admit that they’ve prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated the men wrongfully. But the heart of the controversy among the general public seems to rest on misguided opinions and an inability to accept the suicide theory because of the taboo in our culture on the subject. Many are simply uncomfortable and even offended by the idea that someone would take their own life. In regard to the Monfils case, I often hear comments by those in support of the murder theory that no one in their right mind would commit suicide in the manner that Monfils died. But that idea falls flat because no one contemplating suicide is ever in a right frame of mind. At the given time, the victim will use whatever means is available or familiar to them, as it was here.

Based on these statements included in the court’s decision, the resistance to even have a conversation about suicide when it is staring them in the face is troubling. And knowing that the subject was never brought up during the 28-day trial is baffling.

According to the court, “(Tom) Monfils’ family’s opinions (as stated by the brother, Cal Monfils, during his testimony at the evidentiary hearing in 2015) regarding his possible suicide consisted of hearsay and speculation.” And, “In light of Young’s (the medical examiner) conclusions, trial counsel’s decision to forego presenting a suicide defense constituted a reasonable trial strategy, particularly given the questionable admissibility of the non-expert evidence (given at the evidentiary hearing) supporting the suicide theory.”

Having spoken with people who’ve dealt with suicide within their own families, the shame and profound guilt of those left behind is evident. They wonder why they were not aware and if there was something they could have or should have done to prevent this tragedy. The subject is painful, disturbing, and often avoided no matter the probability of its likelihood. But these influences should not blind any of us untouched by its effects to the possibility of suicide.

Statistical analysis favors our argument: According to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, “Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States” and is highest in middle-aged white men. “Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide.” In Wisconsin, it’s the 4th leading cause of death for ages 35-54. (Monfils was 35 when his life ended.) “Over four times as many people die by suicide in Wisconsin annually than by homicide.”

At this moment, we’re disappointed about the latest ruling but we are far from over and out and we will continue to exert a relentless stance in our quest to succeed. We have no illusions about the uphill battle we still face but if we can help it, we will never allow this injustice to persevere. We will take the plunge back into indeterminate waters as our mission expands to new levels of awareness and farther up the judicial ladder in 2017.

A petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court is our next step. If this request fails, the legal team will pursue relief in the federal courts where the sixth man, exoneree Michael Piaskowski, obtained justice in 2001.

Until then, here’s a recap of upcoming events that I hope will greatly support these efforts. Two documentaries that will heighten awareness of this case are on the horizon and will be completed in 2017.

Beyond Human Nature is an examination of the human element and the interaction of the individuals involved on either side in the Monfils case.  Father and son team, Michael and Dave Neelsen of StoryFirst Media, based in Madison, Wisconsin are producing this project. Completion and distribution dates and venues are still unknown.

beyond_human_nature_banner

Banner courtesy of ‘StoryFirst Media’

The Innocent Convicts examines how wrongful convictions occur. Seven cases, including the Monfils case, are reviewed in this project. Mark Saxenmeyer of The Reproters Inc, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the producer. Because of our involvement in the Monfils case, I and my friend and colleague, John Johnson, were interviewed for this project which will air on numerous PBS stations across the country in 2017. Specific completion and distribution dates are still unknown.

the_innocent_convicts_banner

Banner courtesy of ‘The Reporters Inc’

My tool of awareness is the book I’ve sought to complete in the past four years. This factual depiction of events from my perspective expands on the 2009 publication of The Monfils Conspiracy. Mine is a testament to the courage and perseverance of many I’ve met along the way who’ve experienced the ill-effects of a wrongful conviction. Because of my specific interest and involvement in the Monfils case, I impress upon my audience the urgency of taking action on behalf of the unfortunate victims aside from the men themselves; their families and close friends, people who led lives similar to ours before this tragedy befell them. I urge all to give credence to their long-standing predicament as well as to the devastation exacted on innocents everywhere.

In November of 2016, I submitted my transcript of this troubling story to a self-publishing company in Minneapolis called, Mill City Press. After finalizing an evaluation of the transcript, I received an astonishing overview. My story was regarded by them as having been “written well” and executed “professionally and tactfully” from a “facts only” perspective. Although an actual publishing date is uncertain, I am hopeful that the book will be available sometime during the first half of 2017.

I will post updates and specifics on all of these projects as they materialize.

cropped-sunrise-october.jpg

Early Spring sunrise on Laddie Lake, Blaine, MN (USA)

There are many uncertain variables at this stage but what an adventuresome and progress filled year this will be!

Did You Hear What I Heard?

Said the Advocate to the Parole Chair….

Each year for Christmas, I strive to find a unique gift to send to the five incarcerated Wisconsin men I advocate for. It’s a challenge to find something meaningful beyond a cheerful note and a suitable Christmas card. But each year the perfect gift does come to mind.

This year, their gift was one of action. Since all of them have now been granted parole hearings, they ask friends and loved ones to send letters of support to the parole commission on their behalf. So I did what I felt was most effective. I went straight to the top and sent a letter to the Chairperson of the Parole Commission himself; Mr. Dean Stensberg. Accompanying the letter was a summary compiled from notes I had taken during a recent evidentiary hearing from last July for Keith Kutska, one of the men convicted in the Monfils case.

Here’s the letter: 

December 15, 2015 

Mr. Dean Stensberg

Wisconsin Department of Corrections
3099 E. Washington Ave.
P.O. Box 7925
Madison, WI 53707-7925 

Dear Mr. Stensberg, 

I trust that this message finds you well. 

My name is Joan Treppa. I am a citizen advocate for the wrongfully convicted. I live in Minnesota but for the past six years, I have advocated for the release of the five Wisconsin men convicted in the Tom Monfils murder case who remain behind bars; Keith Kutska, Reynold Moore, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn and Michael Johnson. 

I was compelled to get involved in 2009 after reading the book; The Monfils Conspiracy. Despite my lack of education in the field of law, I recognized that this case was handled in the worst possible manner. In an attempt to find something that would cause me to believe that these convictions were justified, I talked with the authors of the book and I met the exoneree in the case, Michael Piaskowski. I then met with the family members of the men.  But I found nothing. In fact, I found the opposite; the more I learned, the more I was convinced that this case is riddled with corruption and that all of these men are truly innocent.   

In 2011, I hired a retired crime scene expert to re-investigate the case files. He did so thoroughly. And he confirmed my suspicions with the knowledge to make such a determination. So he helped me to find a law firm to represent one of the men, Keith Kutska—the lead suspect in the case. 

In 2013, we were successful. We hired Attorney Steven Z. Kaplan from the law firm of Fredrikson&Byron, PA in Minneapolis to study the case. He spent more than two years combing through the details. His evaluation matched ours; that the case was suspect. But Mr. Kaplan went a bit further in his assessment when he was convinced that the victim, Tom Monfils, had indeed committed suicide. 

Much of the evidence that was available at the time and that pointed to a possible suicide was never addressed during the trial. It should have been. Even Cal Monfils, the victim’s own brother tried to convince the lead detective that the knots on the rope and weight were most likely tied by his brother Tom. But the detective dismissed that notion and assured the one person who knew his own brother better than anyone else that they had already looked into it, when in fact, they had not. The rope and weight were sent to the crime lab. But when the crime lab came back with a recommendation to send the evidence to the Coast Guard, because the knots were determined to be nautical knots, that action was never taken. Let me clarify; those critical pieces of evidence were never sent to a lab that could have properly identified them. 

A thorough investigation would have also included doing a psychological evaluation of Tom Monfils. That was never done. If one had been done, it would have been clear that he had emotional issues and that he was a prime example of someone with suicidal tendencies; he had been in counseling, he kept to himself, his marriage was in shambles, and now he was being chastised for snitching on a co-worker. He died in a manner familiar to him from his Coast Guard days. He was part of a team that retrieved fellow officers who had jumped ship by tying heavy objects around their necks in an attempt to commit suicide. 

A case like this is tragic beyond words. Many lives have been devastated because of it. And the injustice continues as each parole hearing comes and goes with no relief for any of these men. There is no consideration of the actual facts. There is no recognition of the flaws that have been laid out in a recent evidentiary hearing for all to see. There is no justice for these men. 

These men do not lie when they profess their innocence. But in the criminal justice system, there seems to be no patience for those who stand by that claim. But these men do so, despite their understanding that it will mean a longer prison term. Is it so hard to understand that they will never fail their own conscience; that they will never sacrifice their integrity and that they will never admit to something they did not do? 

I stand by these men and will do so as long as they seek freedom. I believe they will see that day come because I believe in them. I believe in everything they stand for. And I believe they are innocent. 

I’ve included a summary I compiled last summer in regards to the evidentiary hearing. I hope you take the time to read it and learn about the many facets of this case that were never covered properly. 

When these men do come up for parole, it should be clear to those who stand in judgement of them exactly why they stand firm in their innocence. My aim is to provide that knowledge. And I urge the commission to release all of these men as soon as possible. 

Thank you for your time.

Happy Holidays. 

Update: A week later, on December 22nd, Mr. Stensberg called me on the phone to acknowledge my letter. He was pleasant and expressed his appreciation for my support of these men. He explained that my actions are an important aspect of the parole process, etc…but what was clear to me was that my letter had struck a chord. After all, he could’ve brushed me off with a formal and hollow response. So I expressed my gratitude and allowed him to continue.

Mr. Stensberg voiced his concern about taking the proper legal steps on behalf of the men. I felt he had missed the jist of my detailed letter. He then contended that it is not the responsibility of the parole board to determine guilt or innocence but to decide through a number of factors whether adequate time has been served, given the crime committed. He did not specifically identify those factors but my recollection of them as stated on the parole commission website, are as follows:

Criteria for parole:

  • Reached the Parole Eligibility Date in his or her sentence.
  • Served sufficient time for punishment of his or her crime(s).
  • Shown positive changes in behavior as well as documented progress in programming, treatment and/or educational achievement.
  • A viable parole plan which offers the offender realistic opportunities for a stable residence, employment, and programming, if needed.
  • An acceptably reduced level of risk to the public. The criteria for determining risk include past criminal and incarceration record, probation and parole violations, security classification, and any unmet treatment or programs needs.

As he spoke, I thought of how all of these men have satisfactorily fulfilled these directives, some having gone well above and beyond and how they’re still being denied parole. But the reality for those truly innocent, like the men in this case who refuse to admit guilt for a crime they didn’t commit, this program is merely a façade, a formality, giving outsiders the impression that it’s about rehabilitation.

Who within this organization would ever admit to an unwritten rule preventing early release for inmates asserting their innocence? On the contrary, this is viewed as an inmates inability or outright refusal to show remorse. Just ask any exoneree.

During our discussion my impression of this man wasn’t reassuring as he firmly stressed the integrity of his office and the seriousness with which they enact the commission’s responsibilities. There was no point in pushing back. It was hopeless and served no purpose. For the time being, keeping this communication line open, did.

In conclusion, Stensberg reassured me,”We are watching the Monfils case closely and we are concerned with the aging men.” But as I listened, my understanding was that Mr. Stensberg was trying to convince me of something far fetched. I wasn’t buying it and I realized that nothing would ever change for these men regarding parole.

My last statement to this man was one of urgency to release these men as soon as possible. But now, in a recent visit to the Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections website, I noticed Mr. Dean Stensberg is no longer Commission Chairperson.