Tag Archives: exonerations

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).

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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.

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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.

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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 current WordPress blog will be discontinued. I’ve created a new site titled A Matter of Facts which contains all previous posts along with additional content and a link to pre-order my book. I invite you to stay connected through subscribing to this new site. Thank you for your interest.

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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!

Setting the Example…

Currently, five innocent men; Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore, and Michael Johnson grow older…more weary…and beleaguered, as their time in prison continues.

We all make a difference…every day. We don’t realize it because often, the results are neither profound or earth shattering. But it’s a fact that the smallest of actions can have the greatest impact and become an example for those around us.

Awhile back, when I emerged from the shadows, compelled to devote my existence to fighting for the rights of six Wisconsin men, it not only ended up having a major impact on their lives…but on mine as well. Suddenly, my life held more meaning and was more focused. Although it may not have been my initial intention to take this specific path, it always was my choice to make. But I now think of it as more of a responsibility I had no choice but to embrace.

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I believe this book, Reclaiming Lives; Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men, which I’m about to publish, will create a firestorm of support that could affect current legal actions. Certainly not because it’s the best literature ever written but because it embodies the very essence of what we as humans aspire to be—example setters.

To further my point, I wanted to highlight something noteworthy that resulted from a story I wrote awhile back. Exoneree, Michael Piaskowski, whom I consider a colleague and valuable friend, was compelled to post it on the site where the article appeared:

“Hello to everyone. As Joan Treppa noted [in this article]; after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to ‘life in prison’ for a crime that I did not commit, I was completely exonerated and ordered released by the United States Federal Court system; all of my citizenship rights restored. In simpler words, the United States ‘legal system’ worked for me. The system made a mistake. The system recognized the mistake. And the system corrected that mistake. I am again ‘free’ to pursue all the rights and liberties bestowed upon all United States citizens.

Unfortunately that very same legal system has failed the other five men in this case. We (the other five defendants and I) are ALL innocent of this crime. All six of us were convicted of an incident that never took place. I repeat: It never happened. Thomas Monfils’ death was caused in some other way. The Green Bay police investigators got it completely wrong. I do not know how Tom died, but I do know that it did NOT happen the way we were convicted of it happening.

Mike Piaskowski and Joan

2013 photo of exoneree Michael Piaskowski and Joan Treppa at benefit for Innocence Project of Minnesota.

That’s where wonderful people like Joan Treppa come in; to pick up where Justice Myron Gordon left off and, at least in this case, to continue the fight for true ‘Justice for Tom’.

With the help of John Gaie, Denis Gullickson, Johnny Johnson, Steve Kaplan and Cal Monfils; and organizations like the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, The Innocence Project of Minnesota, The Wisconsin Innocence Project, and the Family and Friends of Six Innocent Men group here in Green Bay; collectively, we fight this just cause. It’s the American way. On behalf of the wrongfully incarcerated everywhere, thank-you Joan, for your dedication and perseverance. – Mike ‘Pie’ Piaskowski

Here’s the link to the story (which was also posted in an earlier blog).

An update: Please help me spread the word. Signed copies of my book which addresses this unjust case are now available for pre-order. (It is currently discounted at $12.95+ shipping). This link takes you to a FB page to access the ‘Shop Now’ button (located in the upper right corner). Books will be shipped as soon as they become available.

I’m truly honored to have had your support along the way as I continue on a path to making a difference and being an example on behalf of these men and their families.

 

Residual Smoke and Mirrors…

In lieu of the current wildfires in Alberta, Canada, I sent a message of concern regarding the safety of my new friend and colleague, Lorraine Dmitrovic, who resides in Ontario. Lorraine responded by saying that her area was seeing something resembling residual smoke from the Province that is engulfed in the actual flames.

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Joan Van Houten

Lorraine co-hosts an Ontario based podcast called, The Ultimate Movies Broadcast Show. She invited Joan Van Houten and me onto her show recently as a follow-up to a previous interview she did with Mark Saxenmeyer, CEO of The Reporter’s Inc, about an upcoming wrongful conviction documentary he is producing called, The Innocent Convicts (which will include the Wisconsin Monfils case). With Joan being the step-daughter of Michael Johnson, one of the six men convicted in this case that is still incarcerated, and me, an advocate on Johnson’s behalf, Lorraine wanted us to inform her audience of our advocacy in the case.

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Joan Treppa

Each interview that Joan and I do reflects back, giving a mirrored image of the infinite devastation that befell countless innocent lives, in the wake of this flawed case. Our goal is to reach new audiences, to educate, inspire, and caution, about the prevalence of wrongful convictions within our society. With a record breaking 151 exonerations in 2015, an average of 3 per week, this issue is slowly becoming less obscure, as the number of exonerations surpasses those of previous years, and as news reports continue to unveil additional stories of innocence.

My husband and I awoke this morning to a definite haze, as described by Lorraine, that ironically traveled both from Canada and from a small town just north of us-Bemidji, Minnesota. I likened this phenomenon to the Monfils case, a travesty of injustice with its vagueness, incomplete and questionable gaps that failed to bring clarity to the resulting death of the deceased victim. Expectations were placed on a dazed jury, forcing them to reflect on evidence that amounted to nothing more than a smoke screen. Their decision to convict these six innocent men leaves us all in a cloud of residual smoke that lingers to this day…

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Smokey sunrise over Laddie lake

Here is the full 54-minute interview with Lorraine Dmitrovic.

 

Picking Up Speed…

I’m sharing some exciting developments related to my mission of creating awareness about the wrongfully convicted.

I invite you to take a look at this website called, The Reporters Inc. It’s owned by a new friend I met just this year, Mark Saxenmeyer. Mark is the CEO of this Minneapolis, Minnesota based nonprofit journalistic production company which focuses on producing independent documentaries dealing with social change and justice.

Mark is currently producing a feature documentary that addresses the issues surrounding wrongful convictions called, The Innocent Convicts. The film examines how wrongful convictions occur by highlighting numerous actual cases. This film will contain a multitude of interviews including staff members from the Innocence Project of Minnesota and a handful of Minnesota and Wisconsin exonerees. It will also contain information and interviews with those involved in the Wisconsin Monfils case.

Mark generously asked me to write an article for his website for the month of November to accompany this documentary. The project was fun and gave me a chance to get used to and prepare for the editing process for my upcoming book, Reclaiming Lives; Pursuing Justice for six innocent men.

 

 

Stay tuned…

Connections, Recognition, Opportunity and Highlights…

Each year, the annual Benefit for Innocence Gala for the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPMN) promises to be better than previous ones. That certainly was the case this time around. On Thursday October 8, 2015, a small group of close friends and family members accompanied me for the fourth year in a row. It was held at The Depot in Minneapolis. The keynote speaker was Erin Moriarty; a CBS Correspondent for the weekly crime series 48 Hours.  Erin was quite approachable, engaging and genuinely sincere. What stood out for me was her compassionate stance on a mission she believes has everything to do with exposing real truths about how wrongful convictions occur. In her speech she talked about how her role affords her the chance to effectively help people. In some instances, having depicted wrongful conviction cases in the program has actually helped change the outcome in a positive way after the story aired. Erin’s overall message was one of personal fulfillment and the provision of hope for those whose stories have yet to be told.

CBS Correspondent Erin Moriary

Keynote Speaker Erin Moriarty

Erin was involved in a 48 Hours segment that aired on March 29, 2014 called, Last Chance, regarding the wrongful conviction of Damon Thibodeaux. Damon was in prison for sixteen years, fifteen of them on death row for a crime he did not commit. His sentence was carried out at the Angola Prison in Louisiana.

Because of that story, Erin has a direct connection with Attorney Steve Kaplan who is on the Board of Directors for the IPMN and was part of the legal team that worked on Damon’s case for twelve years. During that time Steve was Damon’s legal counsel and mentor and in 2012 when Damon was finally freed from prison, Steve was the one to pick him up at the prison gates. Together the two of them drove back to Minneapolis in Steve’s rental car. Steve had convinced Damon to move away from Louisiana and in with he and his wife until Damon could manage life as a free man. This amazing display of compassion prompted the IPMN to award Steve with the ‘Never Forgotten’ award, with Erin there as a witness. Steve, being the humble soul, agreed to accept it only if he wasn’t expected to give a speech. So when Steve accepted the award, he uttered a quick “thank you” and exited the stage to the sound of deafening applause. I am proud to be affiliated with Steve (for three years now). He’s the attorney representing my friend Keith Kutska; one of the five innocent men I advocate for in the Monfils case. I have the authority to say that Steve has since shown the same dedicated compassion towards Keith as he did with Damon. Here is a short clip of the noble work he does for his clients on YouTube.

Exoneree Damon Thibodeaux with Attorney Steve Kaplan

Exoneree Damon Thibodeaux with Attorney Steve Kaplan. Photo courtesy of the IPMN

A new friend who attended the gala with us is Allison Lee.  Allison’s brother David is currently serving a life sentence for murder and has been in prison for 29 years. Allison believes he’s innocent and has become more involved in her brother’s case in the past few years. She contacted me after learning of my letters to David since 2013. She wanted to set up a meeting to discuss his case. The meeting was held at my house with my associate Johnny Johnson; a retired private investigator. Allison had mentioned she wanted to contact one of the weekly TV series that covers cases like her brother’s so I arranged for her to join us at the gala. She was amazed at the coincidence and excited about the prospect of sharing her brother’s story with Erin Moriarty face to face. She took full advantage of her good fortune that evening. Erin was quite receptive to Allison’s pleas but added that she could not make any promises regarding the possibility of covering David’s case. All that mattered to Allison that evening was this rare opportunity.

Allison Lee, Joan, Clare Martinson, Erin Moriarty and Michael Piaskowski

Allison Lee, Joan Treppa, Clare Martinson, Erin Moriarty and exoneree Michael Piaskowski

Other friends joining us from Wisconsin were; exonerees Mario Victoria Vasquez and Michael Piaskowski and friend and author, John Gaie. My sister Clare Martinson also drove from Wisconsin with my niece Jordan Teague. Other friends in Minneapolis who attended were, Pat and Rosemary Bonnett, Sue Stang and hubby Jeff Johnson, exoneree Audrey Edmunds and her new beau Dave Anderson. We also met Sascha Matuszak, a multimedia journalist who recently connected with Mario and I and expressed a desire to learn about wrongful convictions. It was fun to reconnect with friends I don’t see often such as Erika Applebaum; former Executive Director of the IPMN, MN exonerees Mike Hansen and Koua Fong Lee and their wonderful families.

Mike,Joan, Jordan,exoneree Mario Vasquez and Clare     Mike and Joan Treppa, Jordan Teague, Mario Victoria Vasquez and Clare Martinson   

Exoneree Mario Vasquez, author John Gaie and exoneree Michael Piaskowski                 Exoneree Mario Victoria Vasquez, author John Gaie and exoneree Mike Piaskowski.

Dave with exoneree Audrey Edmunds

Dave Anderson and exoneree Audrey Edmunds

Some of you will recall that I met local reporter/attorney Ted Haller from Fox 9 news at last year’s gala and that the story he did earlier this year about our Wisconsin case was up for an award. http://www.fox9.com/archive/1826477-story Although Ted’s story did not win, his sentiments to me in that regard included having the ability to help people as a first priority. Ted was emcee at the gala again this year so he took the opportunity in the first few minutes of his speech to mention me by name and to share his aspirations to continue to do stories like mine. He also voiced an appreciation of having people like me on the front lines to create them. It was very touching. Ted’s praise also prompted my husband to tell me how very proud he is of me, which was the most amazing highlight of  the entire evening!

Emcee Ted Haller

Emcee Ted Haller 

Here’s a WCCO Ch. 4 Interview with Erin Moriarty.

Here’s a brief piece of Erin’s speech at the gala.

Here’s a link to more info on the Monfils case, a compilation of related news articles, interviews and recent activities.

Guarded Optimism…

Despite growing proof that wrongful convictions occur, many people have difficulty believing that the justice system gets it wrong at all. Statements like, “If a person is arrested or charged, they must have done it or been involved somehow,” or “Certainly if they confessed they are guilty because why would someone confess if they are innocent,” surface regularly. One statement I heard recently questioned why a prosecutor would refuse to acknowledge that a mistake was made if the facts clearly prove it? And lastly, “How can you ever be absolutely sure a person is truly innocent?”

brown_county_courthouse_1Brown County Courthouse, Green Bay, Wisconsin

It isn’t until you dig in and do a bit of research. Then the lightbulb goes on and you start to understand that confusion comes from plain ignorance or how we would like to view our legal system. The danger lies in resisting acknowledgment that there is a problem despite the proof. In all wrongful conviction cases new details surface that would have resulted in a different conclusion had that proof been disclosed initially. I’m talking about facts that were previously unknown, later found to be incorrect or (and this one is alarming) were purposely concealed. It is very hard to open our eyes and hearts to the possibility that things are not always as they seem, but it is imperative that we do so for our own good as well as the good of humanity. Accepting that a problem exists is the only path to solving this problem. I advocate for the victims of wrongful convictions because of insight from trusted colleagues who are cognizant of this issue and who largely form their opinions based on the facts and their personal experiences with clients who’ve experienced a wronful conviction firsthand. Sure, we all have opinions and biases but they must be formed through facts. Equally as important, we must not prejudge a situation before we have all of the necessary information.

courtroom-for-keiths-hearing-7-22-15Evidentiary hearing at the Brown County Courthouse, Green Bay, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

Lately, I’ve promoted my beliefs (yes, biased ones) in regard to the specific Monfils wrongful conviction case  from Green Bay, WI. In my opinion, this case was pursued improperly from the beginning. Here are solid facts to support those claims in a 90-page post evidentiary hearing brief, filed on Sept. 2, 2015 by Keith’s defense team following the recent evidentiary hearing on July of 2015. They certainly lead me to believe that a grave injustice has occurred and needs to be rectified.

On September 22, 2015 the State of Wisconsin filed its 35-page response:

The State insists on denying Mr. Kutska a new trial. They call the defendants brief, “…yet another entertaining story, alternatively based on hearsay and conjecture, not supported by the evidence deduced at the hearing, that seeks to detail an entirely speculative theory as to how the crime victim, Tom Monfils, died.” This statement is especially interesting because it mimics the Federal Court’s statement in the exoneration of Michael Piaskowski in 2001, “…that much about the case against Piaskowski “is conjecture camouflaged as evidence.”- 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (WI)

The State argues that, “Kutska’s claims either repackage his post-conviction and appellate arguments or raise issues that should have been addressed at the time, and therefore are barred by this doctrine of issue preclusion as well as §974.06(4), Wis. Stats.” 

One of the State’s arguements is that too much time has passed. They pose a limit on how many motions can be filed and how much time should be allowed to bring forth new evidence. It’s important for the State to avoid, “…use of unlimited prosecutorial and court resources that should not be wasted in response to serial post-conviction motions addressing issues that either have been decided, or inexplicably were not raised many years earlier.”,  while giving no consideration to the lives of those directly harmed.

For those unfamiliar with this case, the State relied on the testimony of four key witnesses:

Dr. Young – a Forensic Pathologist who incorrectly ruled the death a homicide. (Cause of death on the autopsy report should have read “undetermined”)

Three other witnesses;

Brian Kellner – Confessed to lying and testifying falsely after being coerced by the lead detective who threatened to have his child custody and job terminated.

David Weiner – While on the witness stand, he was serving time in prison for shooting his brother to death.

James Gilliam – A jailhouse snitch.

These witnesses were used to connect all six co-defendants and the results were devastating.

This final 45-page response from our defense team was filed on October 1, 2015. It is mind blowing, articulate and gets to the true heart of this troubling matter.

The following characterizes the crux of the case as it appears in this final document:

“On a retrial, a jury would learn the following:

A. Dr. Young lacked any training or ability to know what she assumed she knew regarding the consistency of the vat liquid, the buoyancy and movements of Tom Monfils’ body in the liquid, and the timing and causes of his injuries. 

B. Credible independent forensic pathology testimony explains why Dr. Young could not reliably and  accurately determine that:

          (i)Tom Monfils had suffered all of his pre-mortem injuries as result of a beating

          (ii) His death was a homicide and not a suicide 

C. Brian Kellner confessed on separate occasions to Steve Stein, Gary Thyes, and John Lundquist    that he had signed a false police statement and/or perjured himself at trial. 

D. Verna Kellner Irish confessed to Jody Liegeois that she and Brian Kellner had perjured                    themselves at trial regarding the alleged bar reenactment because of pressure from a police             investigator. 

E. Ron Salnik and Char Salnik, the Fox Den Bar owners, denied before and at trial that any “role-       playing reenactment” had ever occurred at the bar, notwithstanding Winkler’s threats of contempt     and to report them for alleged poker violations if they refused to affirm that the reenactment had       happened. 

F. Ardie Kutska, who was present at the Fox Den Bar at all times on the night in question, has likewise denied that any such “role-playing reenactment” ever occurred and that the Brian Kellner and Verna Kellner Irish testimony was patently false. 

G. Jon Mineau, Pete Delvoe, Don Boulanger, Dennis Servais-the four mill workers whom Brian Kellner testified Kutska had told him were witnesses to the alleged bubbler confrontation/beating–each denied ever seeing any such incident. 

H. Before and at trial, Brian Kellner and Verna Kellner Irish attempted to disavow significant portions of their police statements and later sought to disavow critical aspects of their trial testimony. 

I. In his 1997 post-conviction testimony, Brian Kellner confessed to perjuring himself at trial. 

J. Amanda Kellner Williams and Earl Kellner, Brian Kellner’s children, have attested to the threats, pressure, and mind-games to which Sgt. Winkler subjected them and their father to secure false testimony from him. 

K. Winkler’s denials that he threatened or coerced anyone, including Brian Kellner and Verna Kellner Irish, to affirm Winkler’s bubbler-beating/homicide theory are refuted by Steve Stein, Gary Thyes, Jody Liegeois, Ardie Kutska, Amanda Kellner Williams, Earl Kellner, Ron Salnik, Char Salnik, Jon Mineau, Dennis Servais, Don Boulanger, Pete Delvoe, numerous other mill workers, John Lundquist, and the testimony of each of the defendants. 

L. No blood evidence of the type that Dr. Young assured the jury would have resulted from Monfils’ beating was ever located, despite law enforcement’s ability and concerted efforts to find it. 

M. There is no eyewitness testimony corroborating the alleged beating and no blood or other trace evidence confirming any such attack, despite its allegedly occurring in view of four mill workers and, perhaps, more. 

N. Monfils was obsessed with death and drowning, including suicide by drowning with a heavy weight or chain tied to a body, had spoken about how much weight needed to be tied to a body to keep it submerged, and knew how to tie the rope knots tied to him and the weight. His death identically mirrored those suicide drownings about which he had spoken so often. 

O. Monfils was under enormous and continuing stress after he reported Kutska to the police, as his repeated and desperate phone calls to the police and District Attorney’s Office seeking to preclude any disclosure of the 911 call tape confirmed. He knew what would befall him in the mill, his family, and the wider community if he was exposed as the anonymous caller. Indeed, after his wife learned that he had been exposed as the 911 caller, she acknowledged that he was capable of harming himself.” 

Time will tell whether or not the courts will admit a travesty has occurred. In retrospect I am troubled that the new evidence is being challenged. But it is. So while we wait for a ruling hopefully later this month I choose to stay optimistic…but guarded.

Weighing in on a Preponderance of Evidence…

People commend my persistence to aid in the relief of five innocent Wisconsin men convicted of murder in 1995. Many others seem bewildered at my desire to do so. But for me, what began as a simple humanitarian effort has turned into a battle between good and evil. I’ve been known to say that if the details of this Monfils case weren’t so tragic, they’d almost be laughable. I’ve witnessed the lives of the innocent dangling on one side of an unbalanced judicial scale as if they are somehow less important, while those on the opposing side expect us to believe in theories that require a creative imagination. My spirit grows weary from the constant rhetoric surrounding the case. And my anger soars as I ponder the reality that this is not about guilt, innocence, or justice, but about career advancement and narcissist pride on behalf of the authorities. With those elements in place, there is no true justice. It’s more about closing a case and ignoring facts-a prevailing factor of all wrongful convictions.

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Dale Basten (74 yrs old)*

A thorough examination of this case reveals both the facts and the outcome of six guilty verdicts, are erroneous at best. I’d sure like to believe had I been sitting on the sidelines as a juror in 1995 when they were told the series of events leading up to the death were incomplete and riddled with “holes” and “gaps” that could not be rectified, that I’d have immediately jumped out of my seat and headed for the door yelling at the top of my lungs,”Be sure to call me when those holes and gaps are filled!” Wouldn’t that have been sensational? But would it have made an ounce of difference? Since when is it my place to question the powers that be? And how preposterous of me to challenge those who’d like to think they’re smarter than me? But what is most unfortunate is that not enough of us demand answers for things we find preposterous.

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Reynold Moore (70 yrs old)*

There is much to absorb with the 3-day evidentiary hearing behind us. As we embark on an excruciating long waiting period, hoping the court’s ruling will be swift, I avoid contemplating the possibility that our efforts could fail, despite the evidence that was presented. Each passing day represents a harsh reminder of what my friends; Keith Kutska, Reynold Moore, Michael Johnson, Dale Basten and Michael Hirn have endured every single day for 20+ years. And there’s the nagging question regarding the exoneration of Michael Piaskowski in 2001-the only exoneration in this case so far. How is it that six men were tried together but only one of them has been freed?

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Michael Johnson (68 yrs old)*

I cannot help but contemplate other thought-provoking questions. When will this nightmare end? What will be the prevailing factor? And when those prison doors do open, will there be adequate monetary compensation?

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Keith Kutska (64 yrs old)*

In the meantime I ask that you take time to read this 90-page document filed on September 2, 2015, with its vast amount of new evidence. It supports the belief that this was not murder but a likelihood that the victim, Tom Monfils, took his own life.

In the past six years amid all the twists and turns on an unrelenting road to freedom, I’ve given up trying to make sense of the madness. And I’ve yet to get through a single one of these documents without the usual indignation…

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Michael Hirn (51 yrs old) 

*All images courtesy of Artist Jared Manninen