Tag Archives: social justice

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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Separate Ahmong Equals…Pt 2

Continue on with this astonishing story, the revelations began as I navigated the Innocence Project of Minnesota website. I had clicked on the page that lists movies and books depicting wrongful conviction cases. I noticed one book that had been added recently. Its title read, “The Road to Freedom; Strangers Restore Justice for an Innocent Man,” by Trudy Baltazar. Hmmm…interesting. Similar to the kind of activity I was engaging in with the Wisconsin Monfils case. I read the paragraph next to the book image and saw that it was about the famous Toyota case which happened here in Minnesota. I was intrigued and wanted to find out if the author was local. I did a search. It appeared that she not only lives in Minnesota but is close to where I live. Wow. I wondered why I wasn’t aware of what she was doing. I decided to search for her online. She was definitely someone I wanted to meet. I found a link to purchase her book. I ordered a copy which also prompted me to highlight Mr. Lee’s case that month for my exoneree series.

A crucial detail I learned about Mr. Lee’s case was that approximately 33 months after he was imprisoned, an attorney filed a request for an evidentiary hearing. The purpose of this hearing was for the judge to rule on whether or not to grant him a new trial based on new evidence that had come to light. The hearing was granted, but then according to Trudy’s book, this happened:

Upon hearing a news broadcast in St. Paul, Minnesota about a husband/father who was wrongfully imprisoned after he drove a car that suddenly accelerated and killed three people, Trudy Baltazar felt compelled to act. She didn’t know the man and she didn’t know the victims but she felt something wasn’t right when the county attorney opposed a new trial even though there was new evidence and 44 new witnesses”.

Trudy had organized a rally in front of the Ramsey County Courthouse. She contacted the local media and one reporter privately contacted her to ask if she would be interested in doing an interview. Trudy was warned that she would be on the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and as it turned out, the article appeared on a Monday, the same day as the rally was to be held. The rally was an overwhelming success with people from all ethnicities and walks of life showing up to voice their concern over this opposition. All of the major local TV stations were there and Trudy was interviewed by each of them.  Big news in Minnesota and in my neck of the woods! But where was I?

This rally had taken place in the summer of 2010. I thought about the timing and it occurred to me that this was the same time that I was heavily involved in advocating for the five Wisconsin men. I’d been making numerous trips to Green Bay to strategize about how to get our own attention concerning those convictions. We were embroiled in our own controversy as I pushed for a risky and bold move, to stage our own rally in Downtown Green Bay near the Brown County Courthouse.

Our rally had to happen on October 28th which is the date in 1995 when the guilty verdicts were handed down. The press surrounding the Monfils Conspiracy book was starting to wane and the pressure was on to keep the momentum going about this injustice. A rally was the only way to get the necessary attention. We could not afford to allow this opportunity to slip away. Until now, no one had pursued this sort of activity and I knew it was up to me to bring it alive.

Trudy states in her book that she had been innately compelled to do something big, though she didn’t know what. How ironic it is for two determined women with essentially the same motivations to simultaneously be inspired. What’s more, to share in a similar event that would cause a shake-down of an entire law enforcement community in two separate states? Whew! You cannot predict something like that.

Well…Trudy and I became good friends. I admire her because of her selfless actions to help an innocent man-a man who is now free. Trudy succeeded in doing something that few are able or willing to do. For this reason, I asked her to speak at one of our car shows to tell her story. Trudy works full time but stays in contact with Koua’s family. She remains an advocate for others in matters concerning the unintentional acceleration issue. I continue to work on what my legacy will be. How fortunate for two gutsy women leading their own charges in the abolition of wrongful convictions, to cross paths. We stay connected and lend support for each others’ efforts to make a difference for those whose voices have been silenced and forgotten.

Lastly, when I wrapped my mind around all I had learned, another thing hit me like a Mac truck. A few years back, when I was parking my 1999 Toyota behind a restaurant, it proceeded to do the exact same thing as Mr. Lee’s. It unintentionally accelerated at an unbelievably high speed despite my efforts of putting pressure on the brake! Luckily, I was able to shut the ignition off which stopped the acceleration. This incident had slipped my mind until now, because, unlike in Koua’s case, my experience did not result in anyone’s death.

Separate Ahmong Equals…Pt 1

Once in a while, life throws a remarkable revelation at you and all you can do is sit there…speechless. I’m excited to share this exoneree of the month story but in order to complete it, I have to share another related substory. However, I’ve decided to keep you in suspense until next month by separating it into two parts. I assure you that both elements add greatly to the telling of this story.

Here’s a brief summary about exoneree, Koua Fong Lee-a Hmong living in Minnesota. His is a catastrophic wrongful conviction case that most in Minnesota are familiar with. Sadly, even now, the details surrounding his exoneration are linked to an ongoing controversy with the Toyota company.

In June of 2006, Mr. Lee and his family were on their way home from church when their 1996 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated to 90 miles per hour on a St Paul, MN exit ramp and crashed into the back of another car, killing three people. In 2007, he was charged with intentional vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison. But then two years later, other Toyota drivers complained about “sudden unintentional acceleration” and Toyota began to recall millions of cars, though not the ’96 model. With the help of the Minnesota Innocence Project (IPMN), Mr. Lee’s new Attorney tracked down other drivers who had the same experience with cars similar to his. Based on new evidence and errors by his trial Attorney, Mr. Lee filed a motion for a new trial. The motion went forward and he was exonerated on August 5th 2010 after serving three years of his sentence.

In 2012, I met Mr. Lee and his wife, Pangoua Moua, at a benefit hosted by the Innocence Project of Minnesota. Both are exceptionally humble people with a deep gratitude for the help they received during this perplexing episode in their lives. The relief they feel that the worst is behind them is still evident. I felt privileged to have met them. It’s difficult to place ourselves in the shoes of these people whose lives are ripped apart. But it’s amazing to see how many of them are able to move forward, keeping the nightmares at bay. Knowing that this is not always the case it’s nonetheless, a blessing.

Recently, I researched this case a bit further and stumbled upon another rather important aspect, central to how Mr. Lee’s release came about. It all happened unbeknownst to me even though it was going on in my own back yard. I was astonished as I learned more about the details surrounding Lee’s exoneration. In fact, what was going on in Minnesota with Mr. Lee’s case was similar to what I was actively pursuing in Green Bay, Wisconsin!

And then…another revelation even more startling, dawned on me…