Tag Archives: wrongful convictions

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).

book_cover_final_revision

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.

230_monfils_conspiracy_cover_web

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.

brown_county_courthouse_1

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.

Mother's-Day-card-from-Jared

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!

A Note of Thanks…

Blaine-High-website-photo-2017

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

Presentation-at-Blaine-High-School-3-30-2017

In-class presentation. Photo courtesy of Michelle Richardson.

 

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…

book_cover_final_revision

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!

 

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.

keith_kutska_during_1995_trial_gbpg

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.

beyond_human_nature_banner

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.

the_innocent_convicts_banner

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.

cropped-sunrise-october.jpg

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!

Defined Distinctions…

We had traveled on this road before. Its familiar contrast of green fields flanking either side of a winding road led to a rather unattractive building. “The fields are so alive and plush and then you get to bare concrete,” I said to my husband Mike. Crops in their prime of life, malleable to the warm summer breeze, defied the drab character of the stone façade held captive by steely gates. In 1941 this building in Oregon, Wisconsin, which is approximately 10 miles due south of Madison, became the second location of a reform school for delinquent and orphaned girls. It was established in 1876 but its current function is a minimum security prison called Oakhill Correctional Institution which now houses two of our five innocent men, Michael Johnson and Michael Hirn. We had visited Michael Hirn at this location in 2015 and on Sunday, June 26, 2016 we were about to meet Michael Johnson. Johnson had been transferred here only recently.

oakhill-correctional-institution

Oakhill Correctional Institution

Personals secured in locker…check. Sport bra…check. Sleeved shirt…check. Long pants without belt…check. Ziploc bag of quarters…check. We felt like pros on this fifth visit in our quest to meet the five men still in prison for the death of paper mill worker, Tom Monfils.

We recognized Michael as he entered the visitor’s lounge. We waved. He was all smiles as he approached us after completing his check-in. “Bless you my sister,” he said as we shook hands.

Many inmates find God during their incarceration. Michael already had long before this ordeal started. And he continues to be a steadfast Christian in spite of it. Reading the Bible daily helps him to cope, to forgive, and to find peace. It helps him to isolate a different existence that truly defines him from the one that was chosen for him.

“Did Joan tell you about my vision?” Michael asked. “Yes she did,” I said. Michael was referring to his stepdaughter, Joan Van Houten and a vision he had shared with her years ago after his murder conviction. This is an excerpt (which I also refer to in an earlier blog):

“I spent approximately eight months in Brown County Jail. While I was in county jail waiting for the jury to return their verdict, is when the Lord gave me this vision. This is a very stressful time in my life, having been stripped of everything that was dear to my life. I believe the Lord was comforting me with this vision. The vision was in a time in the future and I did not yet understand it. I believed at the time it was of the Rapture. It was ten years before I correctly understood the vision. It began with me walking amid rubble, as I looked down I wondered why I wasn’t being cut or hurt by what I was walking on. The presence that was with me said: “It is because I am guiding your feet.” I then looked up and it was a summer day, the grass was green and the sky was blue with puffy white clouds. Before me was a blacktop road with a woman running on it up to a Control Tower screaming and waiving her arms in the air. Then I looked up and the clouds were rolled away and Jesus was looking down at me and was smiling. This vision was of the institution I am currently incarcerated in (Stanley Correctional Institution), yet this institution had not yet been built at the time I had this vision. I believe this woman was running to the authorities with some kind of information, the truth about the Thomas Monfils murder. I was reminded that a woman holds the Scales of Justice in front of the courthouse.”

Thinking of Joan brought tears, causing Michael to reclaim his composure. I spoke up about the time Joan had told me about this vision in 2010. “Joan said that both of you thought the woman was her at first, but then changed your minds after I became involved in 2009,” I said. I fell silent, thinking about how that conversation with Joan had defined my duties as an advocate and how I had participated in passing along a single torch in an effort to find legal assistance for all five of the men wrongfully convicted.

Michael spoke of his family with longing. The unfairness, the consequences of being absent from their lives, but knowing that he will return home one day, are truths that each of the five men share; thoughts all of them desperately cling to.

Mike went to purchase drinks for all of us while Michael headed toward the restroom. After both returned Michael looked down at the palm of his hand and chuckled. He then turned his palm outward. “I wrote some things down that I wanted to cover and I smeared them when I washed my hands,” he said. But as we conversed, topics we covered triggered his memory, allowing him to recall most of what he had written down. I reassured him that the law firm representing Keith Kutska has turned this case on its side to learn everything there is to know about what happened. “They are very capable,” I said.  “And they will continue on with this fight for as long as they are needed.”

Joan and Mike Treppa w Michael Johnson at Oakhill Correctional, 6-26-16

Joan and Mike Treppa with Michael Johnson

In a recent podcast interview, Joan described evidence that should have been used to prove Michael’s innocence. She said that during the investigation Michael had been approached by a local reporter who asked him if he knew Tom Monfils. Michael told him that he did and that Monfils was a nice guy who brought homemade popcorn into work to share with everyone. He stated that at work, Tom Monfils was known as the popcorn man. It was later determined that Michael was incorrect and that the popcorn man was actually someone else. Despite these documented facts, the video of that conversation with the reporter was never disclosed during the trial.

The two-part podcast interview with Joan Van Houten:

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.

12931026_10207499824188684_9204887136331305181_n

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.

IMG_20160315_160711

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…

Smokey sunrise over Laddie Lake 5-7-16

Smokey sunrise over Laddie lake

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

 

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.

6th annual walk 2015 - candles

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.