Tag Archives: Innocence Project

A Note of Thanks…

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Blaine High School. Photo courtesy of BHS FB page

Hello Blaine High!

I’m posting a brief note to recognize and thank the amazing students we met in the three Criminal Justice classes at Blaine High School this past month.

In our mission to highlight wrongful convictions we are proud to educate young adults like you because you represent the future. You will lead this country and based on your prior experiences and knowledge, you will be the ones making the hard and important decisions for us all. Johnny and I appreciated your questions, your willingness to listen, and your patience as we navigated together through a disheartening topic–discussing your impressions of the Monfils case, aspects and flaws of eye-witness identification, cross-racial identification, and forensic science. We were especially touched by and will always remember the personal stories some of you shared as well.

Most of all, we are honored to have met you and we hope the information we presented will be useful as you build your futures. We invite you to stay connected and follow along as the legal process continues. Please feel free to reach out to us through this site with additional questions and comments.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t also thank teachers, David Bestul and Lance Pettis for inviting us. Awesome teachers like you enhance the education of your students by providing an array of topics from multiple viewpoints.

Best wishes to all and may justice carry you through the toughest of times.

Sincerely,

Joan and Johnny

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In-class presentation. Photo courtesy of Michelle Richardson.

 

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.

 

Personified Images…

Sincere apologies are in order regarding my blog which continues to suffer as I focus efforts on the final stages of my book. It’s still a few months away from being published but when considering this project has been in the works for approximately four years, that’s no time at all.

I am proud to present to you the latest progress-the front cover design which portrays all of the victims in this tragedy; (LtoR) Decedent, Tom Monfils, convicted men; Dale Basten, Michael Johnson, Michael Hirn, Reynold Moore, Keith Kutska and exoneree, Michael Piaskowski.

In my opinion, no words amply characterize the emotions conjured by this image…

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I thought it fitting to also include something I shared in a previous blog–the book’s Foreword written by one of these men, Keith Kutska:   

While at the James River Paper Mill on the morning of November 21, 1992, Tom Monfils disappeared from his work area and was later found dead at another location in the mill. Despite the evidence pointing to suicide, the police assumed that an “angry mob” of his co-workers had murdered him. The investigation soon centered on six men who had been working at the mill that day. I know this because I am one of those six.

Few people, unless they or someone close to them has experienced what the “Monfils six” and their families have endured, are likely to understand the anxiety and sense of helplessness that overtakes an innocent person while he cooperates with law enforcement, only to have it call him a liar, a thug, and a murderer. Few can know what an innocent person suffers as he loses his job and becomes the subject of media stories and public contempt for a crime he did not commit. They will not experience or know the frustration that an innocent person experiences watching his family suffer as the investigation and trial continue.

Few people, unless they or someone close to them has experienced what the “Monfils six” and their families have endured, are likely to understand the anxiety and sense of helplessness that overtakes an innocent person while he cooperates with law enforcement, only to have it call him a liar, a thug, and a murderer. Few can know what an innocent person suffers as he loses his job and becomes the subject of media stories and public contempt for a crime he did not commit. They will not experience or know the frustration that an innocent person experiences watching his family suffer as the investigation and trial continue.

Staying hopeful is difficult. Because I have been convicted, the struggle is uphill. That is something that every wrongfully convicted person soon learns. What I have also learned is that an innocent person can choose to maintain his own integrity. That is one thing that the system cannot take. I will continue to speak the truth and declare my innocence, just as the other members of the “Monfils six” have.

After I had been in prison for more than fifteen years, I received a letter from Joan Treppa, a woman I had never met, but whose life was also changed by this case. She became a champion for all of us and for all wrongfully convicted people. If we regain our freedom, it will be because Joan cared and acted when she saw an injustice. I hope that this book inspires others to follow her path and become advocates for the wrongfully convicted.

–Keith M. Kutska

Visit this new site for indepth information about this case:

Lastly, thanks to all of you for accompanying me on this journey!

 

Foreword March…

A few weeks ago, friend and colleague, Erik Stewart posted on Facebook, some very thoughtful feedback about a large project I’m currently tackling; writing a book. Yes, an entire book that has occupied much of my time for the past three years with this past year being the most demanding.

I’ll be honest; I never thought I had it in me to compose anything more than a weekly blog. But with encouragement from so many like Erik, who are willing to devote time to scrutinizing my transcript as well as lend advice and provide me with helpful feedback, I’ve been able to fill empty pages with words that are evolving into a solid and compelling story. I am excited that the telling of this fantastic journey of the past seven years to aid in the release of five (originally six) men wrongfully convicted of murder in 1992 is coming to fruition.

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T-shirt logo for six innocent men

My reasons for writing this book are critical at a time of extreme and unfair biases and blatant cruelty toward others no matter where we look. I believe it is imperative that we, as a society, be cognizant of the injustices that inundate the lives of those around us and realize the necessity to help correct them. If all of us experienced the depth of emotional healing and gratification that accompany selfless actions, I believe we all would become better people.

Proof of action must accompany words of wisdom which is the embodiment of this literature. Being an example and inspiring those who read it to focus more on working through problems with patience and kindness rather than misguided judgement or criticism is the underlying message. As I work through a lengthy process of creating what I call someone else’s story through my eyes, the ultimate goal is to produce a book that is honest, informative and accurate that will spur discussion about wrongful convictions and about our flawed judicial system.

As depressing as the book’s subject matter is, the story will end on a positive note even though the overall journey remains unresolved. It depicts a moment in time that catapulted a situation from devastating, to one of hope and distinct possibilities, with an appreciation that the actions of complete strangers have brought forth comfort and peace of mind to its victims for the first time in years. I’ve been told that the story I’ve composed is a seamless extension of the book that compelled me to get involved, The Monfils Conspiracy; The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.

Today I am unveiling an excerpt that sets the tone for my entire book. It is the testimonial of an individual that I deeply respect and who has maintained the highest form of integrity despite immeasurable pain and suffering for two decades. I am pleased that Keith Kutska, the main suspect in this wrongful conviction case, has agreed to compose a Foreword for my book. I am honored to share it with you now. I read it to an intimate crowd of family and close friends of the men in prison at our 7th annual Walk for Truth and Justice in Green Bay, WI on October 28, 2016.

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Joan Treppa speaking at 7th annual ‘Walk for Truth and Justice’

Please consider these thoughtful words from an innocent man:

Foreword by Keith Kutska:  

While at the James River Paper Mill on the morning of November 21, 1992, Tom Monfils disappeared from his work area and was later found dead at another location in the mill. Despite the evidence pointing to suicide, the police assumed that an “angry mob” of his co-workers had murdered him. The investigation soon centered on six men who had been working at the mill that day. I know this because I am one of those six.

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(L to R) Decedent, Tom Monfils, Convicted men; Dale Basten, Mike Johnson, Mike Hirn, Rey Moore, Keith Kutska and exoneree Mike Piaskowski

Few people, unless they or someone close to them has experienced what the “Monfils six” and their families have endured, are likely to understand the anxiety and sense of helplessness that overtakes an innocent person while he cooperates with law enforcement, only to have it call him a liar, a thug, and a murderer. Few can know what an innocent person suffers as he loses his job and becomes the subject of media stories and public contempt for a crime he did not commit. They will not experience or know the frustration that an innocent person experiences watching his family suffer as the investigation and trial continue.

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Garrett waiting for his Great Grandad, Mike Johnson, to be released from prison

Most people assume, as I once did, that even if the police and prosecutors do not know or admit the truth, the jury will surely find it in the end. In the “Monfils six” case, like in other wrongful conviction cases, this did not happen. All six of us were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, sentenced to life in prison, and separated from our families and everything else that made our lives worthwhile. From then on, we could only hope that someday the truth would become clear and the injustice corrected. Our days would be filled with the depression, despair, and disappointment that an innocent man endures as his appeals and other legal efforts fail, and he fears that he will never regain his freedom and life.

Michael Piaskowski exonerated in 2001

Exoneree Michael Piaskowski hugging his daughter, Jenny, upon release in 2001

Staying hopeful is difficult. Because I have been convicted, the struggle is uphill. That is something that every wrongfully convicted person soon learns. What I have also learned is that an innocent person can choose to maintain his own integrity. That is one thing that the system cannot take. I will continue to speak the truth and declare my innocence, just as the other members of the “Monfils six” have.

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Signs carried by supporters in 2016 Walk for Truth and Justice

After I had been in prison for more than fifteen years, I received a letter from Joan Treppa, a woman I had never met, but whose life was also changed by this case. She became a champion for all of us and for all wrongfully convicted people. If we regain our freedom, it will be because Joan cared and acted when she saw an injustice. I hope that this book inspires others to follow her path and become advocates for the wrongfully convicted.

–Keith M. Kutska

 

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Meeting Keith Kutska for the first time in 2015

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.