Tag Archives: wrongful convictions

Youth=Our Future

A Happy New Year to everyone!!

On Thursday, December 21st, I was scheduled to do a presentation for students in Teacher Lance Pettis’ Criminal Justice class at Blaine High School. As I approached the school entrance, I recalled the warm reception my trusted partner – retired crime scene expert John Johnson – and I had received from his previous year’s classes. We were delighted by their interest as we navigated through a foreboding overview of wrongful convictions.

Being on my own this year, I hoped to again achieve the same level of interest. I arrived equipped with a new PowerPoint program I put together that provided an informative pictorial presentation for them.

BlaineHS-2

Johnny and me last year with image of all the men on screen in background

Prior to visiting these classes, I asked Mr. Pettis to give the students an assignment; to read the entire 2nd chapter of my book titled Tragedy in Titletown. This chapter is one of the longest, filling 16 pages. It’s a detailed summarization of events leading up to the 1992 death of mill worker Tom Monfils in a Green Bay paper mill and the convictions of six innocent men two and a half years later. Having the students read this chapter allows me to focus on other important aspects such as some of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, i.e., perjury or false accusations, false confessions, false or misleading forensic evidence, and government misconduct. I then indicate how each of them affected the outcome in the Monfils case and I disclose the new evidence that has since come to light.

It’s a lot of information to take in so at about the halfway point of the presentation, we take a short breather and have some fun. This is also when we get to the last of the main leading causes of wrongful convictions; mistaken identification. I test the student’s ability to accurately identify the true perpetrator in the example below and then I sit back and watch their reactions as I disclose the answer. This is my absolute favorite part of the presentation because what is revealed never fails to blow their minds. And I know that if they remember nothing else, they will certainly remember this exercise.

The police sketch in the center represents an actual image that was televised across the country in 1995. One of the photos on either side of the sketch is the correct match. The point of this exercise is that out of the current 350+ DNA exonerations, misidentification of a suspect through the use of a composite sketch is incorrect 27% of the time, according to the Nat. Registry of Exonerations. However, the results from this one reveal a much higher fallibility rate. At least half and in some instances, approximately two thirds of those not familiar with this case, make the wrong choice.*

Oklahoma City Bomber

Police Sketch

As is typical in all past sessions, the time flew by with the students posing carefully thought-out questions during the 45-minute presentation. It was and always is refreshing to also hear correct answers to many of mine.

In the time remaining before the bell rang these students asked about likely motives of the authorities to convict the wrong person, compensation for exonerees, and if people’s rights are reinstated when exonerated. One thoughtful student wondered how they (as students) can be helpful in spreading the word about wrongful convictions. Another asked if I’d pose for a photo. I appreciated their positive feedback about the chapter with some of them mentioning how much they enjoyed it and how well they thought it was written.

I recently sat in my dining room with reporter, Eric Hagen, who writes for the Blaine edition of my local ‘Life’ newspaper. I expressed the need to educate students on this topic and to prepare them before they find themselves in a vulnerable situation. I explained to him that my outline also includes a discussion about the Miranda Warning because of the importance of students being proactive and knowing their rights as citizens, should they be targeted by law enforcement.

Find Eric’s article here.

Stat for juveniles   Brendan-dassey                                                                          Brendan Dassey   

An alarming statistic from the Innocence Project states that “65% of the juveniles exonerated through DNA evidence falsely confessed to crimes they didn’t commit.” Circumstances such as Brendan Dassey’s also suggest an increased risk of youth being wrongfully convicted simply because they are unaware that they should not talk to the police without an adult (attorney or parent) present. Research also yields that an overwhelming number of young people between the ages of 18-23 are targeted for crimes.

Innocent people fear that if they “lawyer up” they will appear guilty. In fact, innocent people are better served with having a lawyer present than a guilty person because for them, there’s much more at stake. And because innocent people also feel they have nothing to hide and want to be helpful by cooperating, they become absolutely vulnerable to trickery when accusations are aimed at them. They don’t understand that law enforcement can and will lie or become narrowly focused on them despite reasonable doubt. They don’t realize until it is too late that an interview can quickly become overly aggressive in order to speed up an investigation or solicit a confession. In all fairness, with officers under extreme pressure to close a case, investigations are done quickly. Mistakes get made. Rush to judgements occur. Lives are destroyed and fade into non-existence. Respect from those around them turns to loathing. The innocent are shunned…silenced…hidden away. And hope for many bright futures fades.

Which is why educating our youth becomes urgent…because they are our future.

To learn more about why people confess to crimes they did not commit, check out the Netflix Documentary The Confession Tapes.

*Answer to exercise:

The correct answer is the photo on the right. This is Timothy McVeigh; U.S. Army soldier, American terrorist, and the Oklahoma City Bomber. He detonated a truck bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in 1995 killing 168 people and wounding over 600. He was executed in 2001 for this crime.

The photo on the left is my son, Jared Manninen. He was also in the military at the time of the bombing but was stationed in CA. Could he have been the victim of a wrongful conviction had the circumstances been different? I shudder at the thought…

I’m Dreaming of a Fair System…

  “Every child must be made aware…

               Every child must be made to care…

                          Care enough for his fellow man…

                                   To give all the love that he can…”    

–Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy lyrics                                                                                                           (By Bing Crosby and David Bowie) 

I’ve always been fond of this verse. Pick any time in our history and it rings as true as the day. These days, as I strive to regain composure from the devastating blow handed down from the U. S. court system earlier this year to Keith Kutska, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore, Michael Johnson, and Dale Basten; five men victimized by a corrupt system for close to twenty-two years now for a crime they did not commit, I’m reminded of Keith’s spirited and powerfully truthful words in his forward for my book…

                              Keith (in background) with his attorney on front page                                                                        of the Green Bay Press Gazette on October 29, 1995

            “…an innocent person can choose to maintain his own integrity. It is one                                                  thing the system cannot take.” – Keith M. Kutska

We all have a choice in how to live meaningful lives no matter where circumstances take us. I say, let us never disregard the powerful messages coming from the unfortunate victims of our criminal justice system who’ve been silenced but have still found the fortitude to teach integrity through example.

Homemade Christmas card from an innocent incarcerated person

As a show of support for a handful of these victims, I write letters to let them know they are not forgotten. During this holiday season, I’m sharing one such letter I wrote recently in an attempt to keep alive, the one thing that can elevate an individual’s spirit if present or completely shatter it in its absence…HOPE.  Because without hope, all that is left is despair. And isn’t there enough of that in this world already?

Dear —–,                                                                                  12-28-2017

This is a bit late but I’m writing to wish you Merry Christmas. I’m a social justice advocate who became aware of your case through social media. I’m saddened about your situation but grateful for the support you have to carry you through the darkness. I have a number of friends who’ve been victimized by corruption within our judicial system. Some have been exonerated while others have not. I’ve learned so much about life from all of them, especially about appreciation for what I have and how easily a wrongful conviction could affect my personal life.

For the past eight years my focus has been from an outsider’s point of view of a wrongful conviction case involving six Wisconsin men. They were sentenced in 1995 to life in prison for an alleged murder that took place in 1992. I didn’t know the men or their families or even about the case until my sister, Clare, a long-time resident of Green Bay, brought it to my attention in 2009. She had met someone co-writing a book that documents all of the facts in the case. She also knew one of the six men and never believed he was party to a murder.

I eventually read the book and decided to get involved because of how ludicrous the whole scenario sounded. It was clear to me that this was bullying by the law enforcement community. Like yours and so many other cases there was no credible evidence or eyewitnesses to positively confirm that a murder took place. The entire investigation was about building a case around a suspect rather than allowing the evidence to lead them to the truth. I wrote my own book about my observations of what I saw and the similarities of this case with many other wrongful conviction cases. As a non-legal person I also disclosed my personal mission and the process of finding new legal representation for these men and why that was my only option moving forward. I self-published this year and actually won a national book award soon after. Unfortunately, although I found amazing attorneys to reopen the case, the legal process has gone south due to politics and the established ties to the case in the higher WI courts. However, one of the six men was exonerated in 2001 which gives me hope that the others also have a shot. So my intent to find similar relief for them remains steadfast.

On this journey I’ve learned the importance of writing to the men. I understand how much it means to anyone behind bars, especially those incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, to have a link to the ‘outside’ world. So here’s my contribution to the writing campaign set forth by those representing you. It is also a tribute to the vast need for more folks to get involved in this issue or something equally important rather than merely complaining about the ills of the world. I am hopeful that this and the message of how destructive wrongful convictions are to our society also becomes an adequate example to follow for those who read my book. 

                                                                                                 Best of wishes to you, my friend.

                                                                                                                             Joan

 

 All the best to all of you this holiday season and throughout the New Year! 

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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