Tag Archives: hope

Down…But Far From Out…

Greetings and Happy New Year! One of my goals in 2017 is to remain optimistic that this will be an exceptional and unprecedented year for ongoing efforts regarding our five innocent Wisconsin men; Keith Kutska, Dale Basten, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore, and Michael Johnson.

There is much to be hopeful about despite a recent setback in our mission to request a new trial for one of those five, Keith Kutska. On December 28, 2016, we received word that Keith was denied justice as the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, barring him once again, the right to present new evidence in a new trial.

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During trial in 1995. Photo Courtesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette

Green Bay’s WLUK Fox 11 coverage included the following excerpt from that court’s decision:

“Kutska requests a new trial in the interest of justice. Because he failed to establish ineffective assistance of counsel or newly discovered evidence, that motion is procedurally barred. In addition, he has not established that the real controversy was not fully tried or that, because of trial error, it is probable that justice miscarried and a new trial would produce a different result.”

Here is the link to the entire Court of Appeals decision.

I’ll remind my readers that none of these men were granted separate trials to begin with, which in my opinion is a denial of a basic constitutional right. But let’s examine what I understand to be “the real controversy” in this earnest attempt to achieve justice; the idea that Tom Monfils’ death could have been a suicide. Those of us who support the innocence of all six men believe there’s plenty of evidence to show that suicide is a plausible explanation of what happened to him. We may never fully understand the scope of the circumstances leading up to his death but the science, the witness testimony, and the human interaction that occurred at the mill on that day in 1992, support this theory.

I believe the dominant reason for the resistance by the courts to allow progress in this case is pride. Simply put, they don’t want to admit that they’ve prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated the men wrongfully. But the heart of the controversy among the general public seems to rest on misguided opinions and an inability to accept the suicide theory because of the taboo in our culture on the subject. Many are simply uncomfortable and even offended by the idea that someone would take their own life. In regard to the Monfils case, I often hear comments by those in support of the murder theory that no one in their right mind would commit suicide in the manner that Monfils died. But that idea falls flat because no one contemplating suicide is ever in a right frame of mind. At the given time, the victim will use whatever means is available or familiar to them, as it was here.

Based on these statements included in the court’s decision, the resistance to even have a conversation about suicide when it is staring them in the face is troubling. And knowing that the subject was never brought up during the 28-day trial is baffling.

According to the court, “(Tom) Monfils’ family’s opinions (as stated by the brother, Cal Monfils, during his testimony at the evidentiary hearing in 2015) regarding his possible suicide consisted of hearsay and speculation.” And, “In light of Young’s (the medical examiner) conclusions, trial counsel’s decision to forego presenting a suicide defense constituted a reasonable trial strategy, particularly given the questionable admissibility of the non-expert evidence (given at the evidentiary hearing) supporting the suicide theory.”

Having spoken with people who’ve dealt with suicide within their own families, the shame and profound guilt of those left behind is evident. They wonder why they were not aware and if there was something they could have or should have done to prevent this tragedy. The subject is painful, disturbing, and often avoided no matter the probability of its likelihood. But these influences should not blind any of us untouched by its effects to the possibility of suicide.

Statistical analysis favors our argument: According to the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention, “Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States” and is highest in middle-aged white men. “Each year, 44,193 Americans die by suicide.” In Wisconsin, it’s the 4th leading cause of death for ages 35-54. (Monfils was 35 when his life ended.) “Over four times as many people die by suicide in Wisconsin annually than by homicide.”

At this moment, we’re disappointed about the latest ruling but we are far from over and out and we will continue to exert a relentless stance in our quest to succeed. We have no illusions about the uphill battle we still face but if we can help it, we will never allow this injustice to persevere. We will take the plunge back into indeterminate waters as our mission expands to new levels of awareness and farther up the judicial ladder in 2017.

A petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court is our next step. If this request fails, the legal team will pursue relief in the federal courts where the sixth man, exoneree Michael Piaskowski, obtained justice in 2001.

Until then, here’s a recap of upcoming events that I hope will greatly support these efforts. Two documentaries that will heighten awareness of this case are on the horizon and will be completed in 2017.

Beyond Human Nature is an examination of the human element and the interaction of the individuals involved on either side in the Monfils case.  Father and son team, Michael and Dave Neelsen of StoryFirst Media, based in Madison, Wisconsin are producing this project. Completion and distribution dates and venues are still unknown.

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Banner courtesy of ‘StoryFirst Media’

The Innocent Convicts examines how wrongful convictions occur. Seven cases, including the Monfils case, are reviewed in this project. Mark Saxenmeyer of The Reproters Inc, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota is the producer. Because of our involvement in the Monfils case, I and my friend and colleague, John Johnson, were interviewed for this project which will air on numerous PBS stations across the country in 2017. Specific completion and distribution dates are still unknown.

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Banner courtesy of ‘The Reporters Inc’

My tool of awareness is the book I’ve sought to complete in the past four years. This factual depiction of events from my perspective expands on the 2009 publication of The Monfils Conspiracy. Mine is a testament to the courage and perseverance of many I’ve met along the way who’ve experienced the ill-effects of a wrongful conviction. Because of my specific interest and involvement in the Monfils case, I impress upon my audience the urgency of taking action on behalf of the unfortunate victims aside from the men themselves; their families and close friends, people who led lives similar to ours before this tragedy befell them. I urge all to give credence to their long-standing predicament as well as to the devastation exacted on innocents everywhere.

In November of 2016, I submitted my transcript of this troubling story to a self-publishing company in Minneapolis called, Mill City Press. After finalizing an evaluation of the transcript, I received an astonishing overview. My story was regarded by them as having been “written well” and executed “professionally and tactfully” from a “facts only” perspective. Although an actual publishing date is uncertain, I am hopeful that the book will be available sometime during the first half of 2017.

I will post updates and specifics on all of these projects as they materialize.

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Early Spring sunrise on Laddie Lake, Blaine, MN (USA)

There are many uncertain variables at this stage but what an adventuresome and progress filled year this will be!

Steady As She Goes…

The promise of a new year incites good intentions, great new beginnings and a longing to leave undesirable baggage behind. A new year….a new us, right? Gym memberships soar, diets commence and monthly planners designed to organize our crazy lives fly off the shelves. These are great concepts that seldom pan out. Why? Because our hearts are not sufficiently vested. And the actual energy needed to maintain them becomes overwhelming because all that has really changed is the calendar year.

But the good news is that we are a resilient species. We never give up entirely. And we believe that our persistence will produce something fruitful.

With that said, I’d like to introduce you to someone very special to me; someone I feel could be a poster child of tenacity and determination; someone who came into my life and taught me how to withstand terrible odds. I met her while advocating for the same cause; the plight of six innocent men from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Coming from opposite sides in a common fight; mine as an outsider and hers being an insider, our friendship has become strong and steady. It has helped us to maintain hope that her situation will eventually improve.

Joan Van Houten started this New Year off the same as she has for the past 20+ years—positive and determined despite a significant and ongoing conflict she deals with daily. Joan remains steadfast in her mission to free a loved one from prison; someone she believes…she knows is innocent. And her 2016 resolutions precipitate being more active and successful at this one thing.

Each year Joan pushes herself that much harder to win this impossible fight. Each year she resolves to never abandon her stepfather, Michael Johnson; an innocent man sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit.

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Michael Johnson (as he looked during sentencing) is third from the left

Joan recently wrote these brutally honest and powerful words about her plight. Having collaborated with her in this tragic circumstance, I have witnessed how hard it is for her to relive the painful moments that continue to persist and will do so until Michael’s sentence is vacated. So I felt her voice needed to be featured on my blog… 

Note: Michael Johnson is the only one of the five men my husband Mike and I have not visited in prison. We plan to do so in early 2016.

A New Year Brings Renewed Hope

By: Joan Van Houten

Another year has gone and we are left to make choices about how we plan to face the months ahead. Do we look back with disdain and sorrow and pain while looking ahead seeing only more of the same? Or do we choose to hold on to the progress made, all the love, effort and passionate actions of those who have so fully given of themselves to help our families?

Families of those wrongly convicted are not delusional. We would not still be fighting … over twenty years of fighting … because we’re too thick headed to believe someone we love is guilty. There are too many of us who know something went terribly wrong with the investigation into the death of Thomas Monfils. It’s not just one family. It’s not just two families. Six entire family units have been fighting to expose and to right what happened to all of us. And all six families remain committed after all these years. Can anyone still believe that each of us is out of our mind?

Year after year of watching our men in pain. Year after year as their children grew to graduate high school and college, have families of their own and children of their own. Year after year of Wisconsin Court officials turning their backs to the truth. So many of us, from different backgrounds, different histories and different experiences … still here and still fighting. It would be so much easier to just move on. To let go and accept that this is a fate that cannot be changed would be a less heartbreaking road to follow. And yet … we fight. Still.

It’s uncomfortable – talking to reporters from both television and print media. None of us work in that field. None of us are accustomed to standing out in the crowd. We’re everyday people with all the normal problems everyone has. To top that off, we’ve been fighting for the release of men who were convicted of murder. Murder! Though wrongly convicted in a case riddled with horrendous acts that go completely against the ideals set forth for our judicial system … convicted none the less. It can still cut deep when assumptions are made about what drives us to continue on – when our motives are shaved down to nothing more than pure lunacy and grief. To be judged in full public view is a hard thing to go through and the ugliness of some coming with all fangs bared and dripping with hate is something that makes me cringe. And yet … we fight. Still.

It’s been a long road and there is a long road ahead. Looking back, I see the monstrous valleys and paths riddled with boulders – I see the flooded gateways and pitted glaciers covering the earth. All these things that seemed insurmountable … unclimbable … unpassable. And yet, here we are … all those things behind us.

Our numbers have grown and continue to do so. With the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, The Conviction of Six Innocent Men by Denis Gullickson and John Gaie, and the merciful presence of Joan Treppa, a Citizen Advocate who adopted our plight as her own, our supporters reach out, to us and for us, more and more with each passing week. Outrage has finally begun to break through the disbelief and the voices of our men are finally reaching the hearts and ears of the masses.

In the months ahead, Truth will be our banner once again. It will be raised higher than ever imagined and ring louder than corrupt ears will be able to bear. With a new year comes renewed hope. And with Hope, all things are possible.

 

Joan Van Houten

Joan Van Houten is the step-daughter of Michael Johnson, one of six men wrongly convicted in the death of Thomas Monfils, detailed in the book; The Monfils Conspiracy, The Conviction of Six Innocent Men written by Denis Gullickson and John Gaie. Instrumental in bringing her step-father’s plight of innocence to the attention of renowned attorney, Lawrence Marshall, who took on the fight pro-bono, she continues the work of bringing awareness of the six wrongful convictions to light.

 

Links to more information on the book and this case:

Click here for all the latest news and video footage in The Monfils case.

The Voice of Innocence is a FaceBook page Joan VH and I jointly maintain.

 

Being Thoughtful and Giving Thanks…

Every day, I think about my many blessings. And I never forget about those who struggle daily to achieve some semblance of happiness.

I’m especially mindful of those who dread any and all special occasions due to the lack hope and basic freedoms the rest of us take for granted.

In the very spirit of what I believe the holidays are all about-a nurturing of deep connections with family and friends-I give to you, a special gift, a thought provoking tribute….

Transformation is Real

Please join me in the celebration of hope, in possibilities and in life itself.

Thank you….and may you and yours enjoy a happy, safe and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday.

Footnote: Daniel Maurer is a non-fiction author and freelance writer/blogger who has experienced many challenges in his life. He generously offered his blog spot as an opportunity for me to share my story. I am deeply grateful for people like Daniel who truly care about the struggles of others and who seek to send a message of hope and comradery to those who have neither. Please check out his amazing journey while visiting his site. Thanks!