Category Archives: Featured Exoneree

Stories of Exonerees I have met.

A New Chapter…

Meeting someone who’s been in prison for a crime they did not commit is very humbling. But observing within them, an attitude more positive than many of us not affected by our judicial system, is surprising…and noteworthy. Mario Victoria Vasquez is such a person. He is conscientious, thoughtful, kind, patient and grateful for his new found freedom and for the outpouring of support he has received through his terrifying ordeal. Mario is also proud. He harbors anger because of what happened to him but he does not let it dominate his overall temperament despite these past circumstances…

“On February 5, 1998, the parents of a four-year-old girl took her to the St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green bay, WI because she had been complaining for two days of pain while urinating. The girl told a nurse that “Mario” had touched her. Based on a physical examination which revealed sores and vaginal irritation, hospital staff determined the girl had been sexually assaulted. A swab was taken and tested positive for genital herpes. The girl’s mother believed she was referring to 34-year-old Mario Victoria Vasquez, the babysitter’s brother-in-law who lived at the babysitter’s house. However, the uncle had disclosed to authorities that the girl sometimes referred to him (the uncle) as “Mario”. A Green Bay Police Detective questioned the girl alone. According to him, she volunteered that she had been touched by her uncle, father and babysitter’s husband as well, but on February 6, 1998, Vasquez was the one arrested and charged with first-degree sexual assault of a minor. Tests were never performed to determine where the disease originated from and the defense counsel was negligent in requesting that an expert be called in to debate; (a) the validity of the testimony of a four-year-old; (b) her obvious confusion of the facts throughout the process, (c) evidence of interviewer bias.  

Mario had served close to seventeen years of his twenty-year sentence, all the while, maintaining his innocence. He was unexpectedly released from prison on the evening of Friday, January 30th, 2015 after a hearing earlier that day to request a new trial. The assault victim, now an adult, had finally come forward to disclose who her true assailants were.

Although this was reason enough for Mario to celebrate, the circumstances surrounding his actual release were not. Mario walked out of the Brown County jail in the middle of a chilly wintry night…alone. He was equipped with inadequate clothing–a light jacket, no hat or gloves, and no means to contact a family member to pick him up. He was forced to go back into the jail to ask if he could use their phone. It was sheer luck that he remembered his son James’ phone number.

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Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez and Joan Treppa

Up until the present, I had only known Mario through letters. We had corresponded since August of 2013 because of a conversation I had with his ex-wife, Darcy. Both Darcy and my sister Clare live in Green Bay and were friends at the time. Darcy became upset one day while the three of us chatted at my sister’s house and I brought up my recent involvement in the Monfils case. “I cannot be concerned over that case when no one cares that my ex-husband Mario also sits in prison for a crime he did not commit.” she said. “Tell me about him,” I said. Our conversation prompted me to start writing to Mario.

I told my sidekick, Johnny about this case and he did an investigative evaluation of the facts. He confirmed that Mario’s case was fraught with the same kinds of issues and inconsistencies as the Monfils case and we found out that the same prosecutor and assistant DA worked on both cases within a few years of each other which sent up red flags. Mario was already under the guise of the Wisconsin Innocence Project by then and though he felt discouraged because of how long it was taking to get his case through the courts, I encouraged him to give them time. I assured him that they were doing their best for him.

The essence of Mario’s letters embodied the utmost respect. He struck me as an educated and well versed individual. I sensed he was hard working and motivated to continue on with a productive and meaningful life. He had maintained integrity despite his misfortune. His letters were similar to reading poetry. In them, he shared acts of kindness toward other inmates through mentoring and friendship. The more I learned, the more I looked forward to eventually meeting him. 

Then on the evening of Tuesday, February 10, 2015, I came face to face with my pen pal. For a moment, Mario and I stood there, staring at each other as though this was a dream. We marveled at the ability to share a handshake, a joke, laughter, tears and a hug. Still, Mario’s fate hung in the balance. There was a hearing the following day to determine whether or not this nightmare was over. Although I was optimistic, Mario would not be at peace until he received word from the Judge that he was absolved of all charges. There was an edginess in his temperament. I did my best to grasp what he was feeling and I reassured him that no matter what, I would stand by him.

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A Family Reunited; Darcy, James and Mario

My sister Clare hosted this gathering of close friends and family on Tuesday evening. Darcy, their son James and James’ girlfriend, Sarah, were present. It was the first time this family had been together since Mario was charged in 1998. We all savored the moment…that evening…this miracle.

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Exonerees Mario and Mike “Pie”

We had also invited Michael “Pie” Piaskowski, the exoneree from the Monfils case, along with his girlfriend, Teresa. Mike Pie and Mario became fast friends. They sat together, sharing individual stories. Many emotions were felt that evening; anger, sadness and disgust for a system gone awry. But we focused mainly on new possibilities and an optimistic future for Mario, Mike Pie and for the many innocent people in prison who have yet to be vindicated.

WIP attorney's Cristina, Katie, Kyle and Curtiss

Mario (center) with WIP Attorneys; Cristina, Catie, Kyle and Curtis

The next day, the hearing for Mario commenced at 1:30 pm in room 200 of the Brown County Courthouse. Cristina, Mario’s lead attorney from the Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) had mentioned that the proceedings would be brief so we arrived early. Mike Pie, Clare, Darcy and I waited in the hallway with approximately 25 of Mario’s family members. Excitement grew when the WIP team walked in. Their presence lent a sense of comfort and excitement similar to the climax of a tense western film when the cavalry rides in to save the day! Mario was ecstatic to see all of us. This was his moment. We were his bravado!

We all entered the small courtroom. We sat and waited. In walked the former Brown County Assistant District Attorney, Larry Lasee, with a sour look on his face. He kept his gaze lowered as he sat in his designated chair. He began scribbling furiously on the notepad in front of him. We rose and settled in again after Judge Hammer entered. Cristina rose and began by defending Mario’s innocence. Mr. Lasee clarified his view in regard to Mario’s absolute guilt. He then added that the DA’s office would not be pursuing a new trial in this matter. The Judge displayed a puzzled look and defined the series of events prompting this hearing-that Mr. Lasee had, in fact, interviewed the witness, now an adult, who disclosed the true identities of the perpetrators. I could not make out the muffled response by Mr. Lasee but I had heard all I needed to. It was clear. There would be no more prison time for Mario. He would be free to rebuild his life.

The last thing we heard was what we, as supporters, had hoped for. The Judge looked at Mario and said,”Mr. Vasquez, you are free to go.” We clapped loudly as Lasee quickly found his way to the door. Now it was time to focus on Mario’s transition. It was exhilarating to think that what had started on paper for the two of us was about to continue on with a new chapter in living…

Find a detailed description of Mario’s story here:

Unintentional Losses…

How many times have we seen car ads that boast about this feature…?  From zero to 60 mph in a matter of seconds!

This type of maneuvering has been proudly embraced by car manufacturers for years as a top selling point over other makes and models. But truth be told, no other car manufacturer has anything that surpasses the capabilities of a Toyota Camry! Certain model year Camrys can go from zero to ninety in as much time and they have a track record to prove it.

I’m just speculating but based on this news report from a recent class action lawsuit in a Minneapolis courtroom which has garnered much attention nationwide, exoneree, Koua Fong Lee, former owner of a 1996 Toyota Camry along with the family of the deceased victims of an Oldsmobile Ciera, would probably agree that this is not a factor to be celebrated. In fact, they have asked Toyota, Corporation to fix a serious problem of unintentional acceleration due to issues with the car’s electronic throttle mechanism so that it does not cause harm to any more lives.

“Lee was driving his pregnant wife, their 4-year-old daughter, and his father and brother home on June 10, 2006, when he exited Interstate 94. As his Camry accelerated, he sideswiped one car before hitting an Oldsmobile Ciera. Experts said Lee’s car was traveling between 76 and 91 miles per hour when it struck the Ciera, killing its driver, Javis Trice-Adams, 33, and his 9-year-old son, Javis Adams Jr. Trice-Adams’ niece Devyn Bolton, 7, was paralyzed and died 16 months later. The three who died were “complete innocents,” said attorney Bill Markovits, who is representing the Trice-Adams family. “We ask you to hold Toyota fully liable,” he said.”  Star Tribune, Jan. 8, 2015

Despite numerous other drivers of the same make of Camry, who have come forward because of experiencing sudden unintentional acceleration-the same issue that Lee insists caused his crash, Toyota stands by its assertion that the fatal crash in 2008 that killed three people and sent Lee to prison for 2.5 years, was solely due to driver error. Part of their argument during the recent hearing states that Lee was an inexperienced driver and that he had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake pedal. They also argued that his 1996 model was not involved in a future recall event that dealt with the very problem he experienced.

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Lee’s 1996 Toyota Camry. Photo courtesy of Star Tribune, Mpls, MN 

“Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sentenced to eight years in prison in 2007. A massive recall of newer Toyota models because of problems with sudden acceleration, starting in the fall of 2009, prompted attorneys to reopen Lee’s case. Ramsey County prosecutors dismissed the charges against him in 2010. The 1996 Camry was not among the vehicles recalled. Lee and four family members who were passengers in the Camry joined with family members from the Oldsmobile in a suit against Toyota.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

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Koua Fong Lee at a press conference in Mpls following a jury verdict. Photo courtesy of the Star Tribune, Mpls, MN

“Trembling as he spoke, and occasionally lifting a tissue to his face, Lee said, “I tried to rebuild my life, but it is very difficult to move on. I am very sad. I want to apologize to the other families” who had members killed or injured. “Every day I think about that accident,” he said, appearing to be on the verge of tears. “Many lives lost.” Star Tribune, Jan. 10, 2015.

“Toyota’s attorneys appeared to be caught off guard. Driver Koua Fong Lee lost control of his 1996 Camry, said his attorney Bob Hilliard, because each time he tapped the gas pedal on the long exit ramp off eastbound Interstate 94 at Snelling Avenue, the car accelerated.” Star Tribune, Jan. 29, 2015

This week’s outcome:

“Toyota Motor Corp. must pay $10.9 million in damages for the high-speed crash in St. Paul that cost the lives of three people and sent another man to prison, a federal jury decided Tuesday. Jurors in the Toyota liability trial found the world’s largest auto company 60 percent responsible for a 2006 crash that also sent a St. Paul man to prison for 2½ years. They found Koua Fong Lee, driver of the 1996 Toyota Camry that crashed into a stopped car at the top of an Interstate 94 exit, 40 percent responsible.” Star Tribune, Feb. 4, 2015

My thoughts drift between deep empathy for both families involved in this terrible incident and what the answer is, as to the appropriate responsibility and duty of the nation’s largest automobile company. Personally, I had hoped that Toyota would have seen a clear and evident problem with their product, and that precious lives are still being destroyed because of it. It would have been prudent for them to take a more compassionate approach. They should have shown the world that their company is based on the highest standard of integrity, by putting their funds towards more in-depth research to get to the bottom of this issue rather than pay multiple attorneys to blame the victims.

Honestly, I believe that what will end up happening is that enough people will feel the same way as I and will seriously consider their next car purchase with this lawsuit in mind. Of course, there will be those who stand by Toyota no matter what because they like the product, but I think that in the long run, Toyota may have already caused their own demise which will likely affect their bottom line as well as their reliability, not to mention their unintentional loss of integrity.

Vroom  Vrooooooooooooooooooooooooooooom…………                                                                                                                 

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Disillusioned Crusaders…

John Grisham, a lawyer who practiced criminal law for about a decade is better known for his fictional stories that center on the complexities of our judicial system. In 2006 he published his first non-fiction story portraying an actual wrongful conviction case involving two friends, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz. The book is called, The Innocent Man; Murder and Injustice in a Small Town about a tragedy that happened in Ada, Oklahoma in 1987. I felt the book characterized Mr. Grisham’s overall view of our “best system in the world”. From his perspective as a lawyer he talks publicly about becoming an author because of his disillusionment of the system and how, in his writings he can easily incorporate his ideals and reassemble the efficacy of a just system. In this book Mr. Grisham writes, “If you believe that in America you are innocent until proven guilty, this book will shock you. If you believe in the death penalty, this book will disturb you. If you believe the criminal justice system is fair, this book will infuriate you.

In 2012, my friend Shirley learned that Grisham would be the keynote speaker at a Midwest Innocence Project Benefit Dinner in Kansas City, Kansas and it was likely that Dennis Fritz, one of the two men depicted in his book would also be there selling his recent book, Journey Toward Justice. I was interested in meeting both of these men because of their involvement in the Innocence Project-an organization that represents the wrongfully convicted. I quickly read both books to familiarize myself with Fritz’ story and Grisham’s connection to him. While reading, I was stunned at the many similarities this case had to our Wisconsin case!

From the beginning the evidence in the case against Dennis and Ron was non-conclusive. With no physical evidence, an overzealous prosecutor intent on winning relied on junk science and the testimony of jailhouse snitches and circumstantial data to create the illusion of guilt. Distorted statements, questionable hair evidence, dream confessions and other bizarre clues completed the prosecution’s circle of deception. Dennis was convicted after a swift trial. The vote of a single juror saved him from the death penalty and he was sentenced to life behind bars. But his co-defendant Ron was sentenced to death. Then luck found them both when they were exonerated in 1999 with the help of the Innocence Project. Through DNA testing the real killer was identified as one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.

Joan with exoneree Dennis Fritz and Dennis' Mom

Joan Treppa standing behind exoneree Dennis Fritz and his mother 

As we walked into the reception area I saw Mr. Fritz sitting at a table with stacks of books in front of him. Next to him was his mother who looked quite frail. The details of their story came flooding back. Dennis had served twelve years for the murder and rape of a young woman named Debbie Sue Carter. His mother had done all she could to help him. Through it all she had proudly stood by her son’s claims of innocence. I was convinced that her current ailments were caused largely by this ordeal and my heart wept for her especially. As Clare, Shirley and I introduced ourselves we were received graciously but I could not shake the shame of feeling intrusive. However, my intention to share the tragedy of five innocent men from Wisconsin compelled me to make acquaintances with Mr. Fritz and hopefully Mr. Grisham as well. My goal was to ask Mr. Grisham for help.

This mission preceded any connections with law firms and we were still desperate to find someone…anyone, who would understand that the Monfils case was flawed and that it warranted re-examination. I was in constant turmoil about having failed repeatedly and even though Clare and Shirley were with me at this event, I felt agonizingly alone in my urgency.

I asked Dennis about how we could meet Mr. Grisham. He suggested that we head over to the table where they’d be seated for dinner without delay, as soon as the doors to the dining hall opened. He could not guarantee much time with the author but said this would be our best window of opportunity.

While we chatted with others in the reception area, I lost track of the time and neglected to see the doors of the dining hall open. By the time I ran over to look, there were droves of people already surrounding Grisham, Dennis and his mother. I stood there helpless…feeling defeated. I conceded that this effort was futile and that these folks were not the ones meant to help.

Alas, persistence eventually paid off and our luck changed drastically the following year. A Minneapolis lawyer by the name of Steve Kaplan, notorious in his own right for his successful pro bono assistance to death row client Damon Thibodeaux, answered our call. And after two long years of studying every last detail of the case, he began the uphill battle of representing the supposed “ring leader” in the Monfils case, Keith Kutska.

Activities of recent years in the Monfils case.

 

A Tall Order to Emulate…

On a recommendation from an exoneree friend, Michael Piaskowski, my husband Mike and I invited a distinguished stranger into our home in October of 2012. We were planning to attend a Benefit for Innocence in Downtown Minneapolis and it was suggested that we invite this exoneree. I looked into his case profile and found these details…

In June of 1989, a woman was kidnapped from her home, raped several times and abandoned along the side of a road in Bluff Siding, Wisconsin. Fred Saecker who was 6’3” tall and very thin with a full head of hair at the time, DID NOT fit the victim’s description of the attacker at all. However, since he was in the victim’s neighborhood around the time of the attack and (according to the summary I read) had been drinking they focused their attention on him. He was charged with burglary, second degree sexual assault and kidnapping. At trial a truck driver testified that he saw Mr. Saecker wearing a blood stained T-shirt and a forensic analyst testified that pubic hairs found on the victim’s body were “microscopically similar” to his.

Fred Saecker was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He would serve seven years of that sentence before DNA evidence would absolve him of the crime. I must clarify that last statement because of its significance. Four years into his sentence DNA proved his innocence but it took another three years for the authorities to sanction his release! Read on…

In 1993, Fred’s Mother paid for DNA testing. Although the tests concluded that he could not have possibly been the perpetrator, his request for a new trial was denied until 1996 when the District Attorney finally dismissed all charges based on this DNA evidence…  

Fred arrived at our house after a five hour drive from Wisconsin on the day of the benefit. He’s tall and thin making him mindful of hitting his head on the tops of doorways and low ceiling lights and fans in our home. He towered over both of us but his demeanor was nonintimidating. In fact, he was soft spoken and thoughtful. He expressed his gratefulness about being invited. Although Mike and I immediately grew fond of him, I also felt nervous. Not because of the accusations against him I believed were false but because I was very naïve about this whole exoneree experience and somewhat vague about the willingness of them to revisit past nightmares.

We had time to get acquainted with Fred before friends would arrive before the event. So we broached the subject of his wrongful conviction. We knew nothing other than a few details and what our friend Michael had told us about his character. Fred was open and honest about his experience despite this being our first encounter with him. I wondered how it was possible for the authorities to target him despite him not fitting the description of the real perpetreator. I also wondered how they managed to not get a sense of his true nature when it was so obvious to us. Ever since that little chat in our home, we knew that Fred would always be our friend. He has joined us on at least one other occasion and we’ve continued to stay in touch ever since.

I think in many ways, exonerees like Fred remain vulnerable to some degree, due to the lasting effects of their tragedies. They are keen when it comes to defining who is truthful and honest, but for some, the risk of being fooled by those whose intentions are tainted, is ever present. I am mindful of the mission I’ve been given and of the importance of not taking these people for granted or underestimating their emotional state. These days, I feel much more comfortable when meeting an exoneree for the first time but the humanity I feel by being in the presence of great courage and endurance, despite all odds, never goes away.

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Exonerees Koua Fong Lee, Audrey Edmunds, Fred Saecker, Damon Thibodeaux and Michael Piaskowski

Sometime ago, Fred sent me a thoughtful message stating, “Joan, you are incredible. I really mean that.” As accepting of those words as I am, from someone I admire very much, there’s no doubt in my mind that the best deserved accolades go to this gentle giant of a man who stands tall, not only in stature but in the wake of extreme misfortune.

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…

A Promise Delivered…

In October of 2013, my husband and I attended a Benefit for Innocence, an annual gala hosted by the Innocence Project of Minnesota along with 20+ other supporters of the Wisconsin paper mill case. The Benefit was held at the (former) Graves Hotel in Downtown Minneapolis. I stood alone canvasing the reception room, touting a small white paper sack containing special gifts. I was excited but a little nervous, too. I had started preparing for this moment months ago. I’d made a solemn promise to deliver some precious cargo, in person that evening. I was on a mission to give these items to the keynote speaker-an exoneree and was determined to keep that promise.

I watched silently and nervously for the arrival of Brian Banks who suddenly appeared and was standing fifteen feet from me. The moment was at hand. This was my chance. I approached him and after introducing myself, I blurted out that I had come bearing gifts. His gracious look despite my awkwardness spoke volumes. I relaxed but only for a moment as I could hardly contain my excitement in showing him these treasures!

Brian Banks and Joan

 Joan Treppa with exoneree Brian Banks

To this exoneree my sincere gesture was appreciated and he was visibly moved. Brian Banks’ story is quite tragic. He ended up in prison because of a lie told about him by someone he trusted…

Brian Banks was accused, arrested and later charged with two counts of forcible rape and one count of sodomy with a special circumstance of kidnapping. The year was 2002. He was sixteen years old with a dream of a lifetime waiting at his doorstep. Brian was, “…a blossoming football star and had verbally accepted a four-year scholarship to play at the University of Southern California.”  But instead, he was falsely accused of rape. The only place Brian was going, was to prison, forcing him to postpone, even abandon any chance of pursuing a career in professional football. He was 26 years old when the California Innocence Project successfully aided in his exoneration in 2011. Brian actively tried once again to resume his football dream. He ultimately did not succeed.

People tell lies. It happens all of the time. But how does one reconcile being sent to prison because of one? 25% of all exonerations regarding a rape charge end up being resolved because the accuser knowingly makes a false statement and later recants. In this case the accuser admitted during a video-taped interview that she had lied. But not before Brian had served five years in prison. Never a thought was given to the consequences of her actions and what her accusations meant for him. After he was released, her aspirations were to reconnect and let bygones be bygones! And charges, perjury or otherwise, were never brought against her.

At the Benefit, Brian said he had spent a lot of time feeling angry over what happened to him. But he was unwilling to waste time on those emotions any longer. In fact, he can now be found working with the Innocence Project, helping other wrongfully convicted people regain their freedom. And he does it with the same passion as when he was cradling a football.

Oh, and what was in that little white paper sack that was so important? It was the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, which documents the Wisconsin case I advocate for. Accompanying the book were letters sealed inside five envelopes with return addresses from four separate Wisconsin prisons with the names and ID numbers of, Reynold Moore, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Keith Kutska and Michael Johnson, all addressed to Mr. Brian Banks…