Tag Archives: wrongful convictions

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.

Highlights of an Injustice…   

After a long absence from my blog, I’m pleased to a present a condensed version of my upcoming book Reclaiming Lives; Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men which was published last week on The Reporter’s Inc. website. Special thanks to Mark Saxenmeyer for this promotion (and also for producing the documentary, The Innocent Convicts, due out in 2018).

My book which will soon be published unveils new efforts to seek justice for the five remaining incarcerated Wisconsin men convicted in 1995 of murdering Tom Monfils. It lends insight into the devastation that followed these convictions especially for the family members also victimized by a sometimes unjust criminal justice system.

With an astounding 2.2 million prisoners in the U.S. and an alarming 4-10% (88,000 to 200,000) of them being potentially innocent, the book also begs for broader discussion on prison reform to include those wrongfully convicted–a conversation that many of us feel is long overdue.

I learned of the Monfils case in 2009 when I read another book called The Monfils Conspiracy; The Conviction of Six Innocent Men, coauthored by John Gaie and Denis Gullickson with the help of exoneree Michael ‘Pie’ Piaskowski. At the time, I knew nothing about being falsely accused or the possibility of being convicted for a crime I did not commit. Since then, the idea that everyone in prison claims to be innocent has taken on new meaning for me because the fact is; many in prison really are innocent.

In the meantime, legal efforts regarding this case continue in the court system. Recently, a petition for a writ of certiorari—a document asking the high court to review the decision of a lower court–was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court by Steven Z. Kaplan from the Minneapolis law firm of Fredrikson&Byron, PA, on behalf of Keith Kutska. This court is in recess until October so a ruling of whether or not the court will consider examining the case will not be announced before then.

The main points of this latest petition:

  • The accuracy and conclusion of the coroner’s report
  • Trial counsel’s failure to consult a forensic pathologist
  • Post-conviction counsel’s failure to consult a forensic pathologist
  • Defense counsel’s failures to investigate suicide
  • Defense counsel’s deficient and prejudicial representation
  • Due process violations and perjured testimony

*Please note that as of July 1, 2017, my JoanTreppa.Wordpress.com blog will be discontinued and all new content will be posted here, at JoanTreppa.com. This new site titled A Matter of Facts contains all previous posts along with additional content and a link to order my book. I invite you to stay connected through subscribing to this new site. Thank you for your interest.

On a final note, I wanted to share the Mother’s Day card my son, Jared, designed for me this year (2017). It contains a photo he took along with a poem he composed with words and phrases taken from my book. Best card ever!