Tag Archives: Six Innocent Men

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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Deferential Observations…   

I recently reconnected with a former classmate, Brian Berghefer. Brian and I were friends through grade school even though I was the fraidy-cat introvert and he was the good-humored extrovert. Brian was always respectful to me, unlike many of the other kids.

Brian was kind enough to purchase my new book, Reclaiming Lives; Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men which was published in June, 2017. I received an email from him shortly after he finished reading it. I felt Brian’s words needed to be shared because not only do they speak volumes about the steadfast nature of Brain’s character but they also convey the public outrage I hoped to rouse as a result of writing this book.

Thanks Brian, for your encouraging and deferential words. It’s feeling like old times, my friend…

Hi Joan,

I just finished your book. It’s the first book I have read in probably 17 years and my first impression is WOW!!

First of all, I cannot believe the raw deal these six men got. I know our system is flawed but not as totally corruptible as what was allowed to happen in GB.

What is it with mid-Wisconsin with these cases where people are railroaded by the system, i.e. The Monfils case and the Avery case? Does this happen elsewhere with such frequency?

                                   Tom Monfils, Dale Basten, Michael Johnson, Michael Hirn,                                     Reynold Moore, Keith Kutska, exoneree Michael Piaskowski

Secondly but most importantly is your taking on the task of seeing these men find justice and your resolve and tenacity in completing the task! Knowing somewhat of where you come from, if someone had told me someday you would be an author I would probably have dismissed it, knowing what a shy and quiet person you were. But now finding your voice through such a noble cause is very refreshing and I applaud your commitment to these men and their families and I wish you well in this endeavor. I only wish I had your ability to commit so totally to a cause.

You have created another believer in me as I sort of remember the case. But it happened when I was working on the Lakes so I never really paid attention and all but forgot about it. My wife who lived in GB at the time barely remembered it (as have many) till I started following you and your progress and reading about the sham investigation. The travesty brought on by it is repugnant and should be to any American who discovers it!

I believe your book is just the tip of the iceberg in waking up public interest and hopefully you can get a major network to join your fight and spread the word creating a broader groundswell of interest. I believe that through persistence, you and fellow Truth Seekers will prevail. I only pray that it comes soon for these men and their families!

Sincerely,
A Very Proud Friend
Brian Berghefer

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A news story about my recent book signing in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Additional photos of the signing.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!