How I Became a Citizen Advocate
Wrongful Conviction of Six Wisconsin Men Captured My Attention, Changed My Life
BY JOAN TREPPA
Six years ago, my life was perfect–and by perfect I mean that it had a suitable balance of life’s ups and downs, moving along at a slow and steady pace towards whatever the future had in store.
But as satisfying as my life was back then, it was much too predictable for a spirited soul like mine, and it was only a matter of time before all hell would break loose.
Sure enough, that happened in the summer of 2009 when I met researcher and writer John Gaie and he opened my eyes to an intriguing social justice cause. John co-authored a book entitled The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men.
I found myself irresistibly fascinated with his true crime story, a book that profiled the 1992 death of a paper mill worker, Tom Monfils, and the subsequent wrongful convictions of six of Tom’s co-workers in 1995. John’s former brother-in-law Michael Piaskowski was, in fact, one of the men put on trial in the town of Green Bay, Wisconsin where the incident happened. John always insisted he knew that the evidence against Michael and the others didn’t add up. He adamantly told me, “Mike would never involve himself in any murder. If anything, he would step in to stop it.”
John explained that the incident threw the entire town of Green Bay, with a population of roughly 120,000 people, into shock. Murder didn’t typically happen in this close-knit community and the absence of any arrests for two and a half years instilled a rising tide of panic among its residents. As time went by, law enforcement and the local media focused more and more attention on the mill workers. To some, it was clear that these “murderous union thugs” were to blame.
John said that one of the most damning facets that influenced the outcome of the 28-day trial in this case was the verdict in the infamous O J Simpson trial, which was playing out at the same time in the 1990s. The belief that a murderer had been allowed to go free in L.A. prompted a jury from Racine, Wisconsin to decide that nothing like that would happen in their so-called backyard.
Only one of the jurors had more than a high school education, and another admitted years later that she couldn’t tell the six defendants apart, two weeks into the trial. They were sequestered during the entire 28 days and some were seen catnapping while being subjected to endless mundane particulars about the daily activities inside a paper mill, and precise details of how paper machines operate.
They listened to testimony from 81 witnesses—three of whom were key to the prosecution’s case. Unbeknownst to this jury, one of those three later confessed to testifying falsely after being coerced by the lead detective, claiming the officer threatened to have his child custody and job terminated. Another was nothing more than a paid informant (jailhouse snitch) serving time for killing his wife, and the third was also in prison for killing his own brother.
Regardless of the absence of solid physical evidence or definitive eyewitness testimony, the six men were convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and given life sentences on October 28, 1995.
The jury was quick in their deliberations. They spent a total of eight hours determining the fate of six blue-collar mill workers. It was blatantly clear; these jurors were more than ready to go home and get on with their lives. In essence, a joint trial that was meant to save taxpayer money and cause minimal trauma to the grieving family of the victim gave little credence to the innocent lives that were being destroyed in the process: the families and friends of the accused and the men themselves–innocent men–according to the evidence John laid out in his book.
However, five years after the guilty verdicts were delivered, an unexpected development occurred. Piaskowski was not only released but he was absolved of all wrongdoing by a federal judge and fully exonerated. His family was able to raise the necessary funds to land his case in a different courtroom away from the county where the trial took place. The reasons for the now-deceased Senior Federal Judge Myron L. Gordon of the Eastern District of Wisconsin to overturn Piaskowski’s conviction were twofold: lack of evidence to show he was involved in the crime and the fact that none of the three key witnesses named him specifically during their testimony. Judge Gordon wrote, that a guilty verdict in Piaskowski’s case “required the jury to pile speculation on top of inferences that were drawn from other inferences…such a verdict is not rational.”
This ruling meant that Piaskowski was free to live his life to the fullest. He could vote, buy a firearm and never be prosecuted for that specific crime again, making it quite safe for him to come forward with any information–good or bad–with no significant consequences. Instead of fessing up or laying blame on the other men, Piaskowski became instrumental in the completion of The Monfils Conspiracy, which he feels accurately depicts what really happened. John Gaie’s purpose with the book was to lay out all of the facts from all viewpoints.
We all have issues we feel strongly about. Most often they stem from our own personal experiences or those of close friends or relatives, like this one did for John. I could have climbed on board with any number of causes that have shaped the course of my life but it wouldn’t have mattered because this one ultimately chose me somehow, and took precedence. After reading The Monfils Conspiracy I became a so-called “citizen advocate” for the wrongfully convicted, connecting people who are equally concerned about the problem, and creating awareness about the issue.
I had no legal background and my knowledge about the subject was nil before I read that compelling book. But I’ve successfully stepped in to help carry the torch to the next level.
What did I do? What do I do? Well, before I could even think about getting involved, I did my research. I attended a book signing in Green Bay to get to know the other two people who helped co-write the book, author Denis Gullickson and the actual exoneree, Michael Piaskowski. The observations I made during that event were enough to convince me that their stories had merit. Denis’ compassion for the Monfils family, accompanied by his outspoken concern that a terrible injustice had been forced upon the convicted men and their families, was unmistakable.
Michael Piaskowski looked me in the eyes that day and proclaimed, “I was fortunate enough to have been freed but the other five are still in prison and it’s my duty to help them however I can.” Piaskowski could have left this nightmare behind and moved on, but he did not. I was awestruck by his commitment and it sealed the deal for me—I was firmly on board to help in any way I could.
I started conversations with my friends that might possibly lead to connections with people they knew in the legal community in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area, where I live. The book was a great tool to get discussions started–so I started selling them. Successfully! I also traveled to Green Bay to meet with, and prompt, the friends and families of the men to conduct a rally in the heart of downtown Green Bay on or near October 28, when the guilty verdicts were read. I felt an annual event like this would help these supporters feel empowered and remain hopeful in their quest for justice.
I also wrote impassioned letters to people such as the attorney general of Wisconsin with a plea of urgency, to take a fresh look into this flawed case. I eventually started to write to the men in prison to introduce myself and keep them abreast of any activities we engaged in. I set up book signings in Minneapolis for the authors and contacted local media outlets to cover this story.
In 2010, one year into my mission, I sold a book to an individual who had spent his entire career in law enforcement. His expertise as a former police officer and licensed crime scene field investigator was vital to our mission and he soon became an invaluable ally. His reaction after researching the details of the case on his own time, and getting a better understanding of how it was handled, was one of disgust and loathing for the law enforcement community in Green Bay. So, together he and I set out to find a respected and capable attorney in Minneapolis that could reopen the case.
Our lengthy search ended in 2013 and, two years later, this new legal team presided over a three-day evidentiary hearing. The case was being re-examined. A miracle was taking place before our very eyes.
The purpose of the hearing was to request a new trial for Keith Kutska, the lead suspect in the case. New evidence was presented and a total of 14 witnesses testified, including the detective who led the initial investigation from 1992 to 1995.
The judge who presided over this hearing is the same judge from the original trial in 1995. We’re currently awaiting a decision from him, waiting to find out if Kutska will indeed be awarded a new trial.
What truly compelled me to get involved in this fight for justice might surprise you. It stems from childhood. I was made fun of and laughed at by fellow classmates when I was in grade school. This caused me incredible anxiety; I was often unable to utter a sound in response. Kids would then bark phrases like, “Cat got your tongue?” I felt helpless and alone. Having grown up in a family with 15 siblings I also felt left out, lost and ultimately forgotten. Even though I believe my parents did their absolute best, it was impossible for them to give adequate attention to all of us, and the results were damaging.
From my perspective, these wrongful conviction cases resemble an extreme bullying campaign, much like the one I endured. I made an overwhelming connection to the plight of these people. And by helping them, strangely enough, it’s helped me to confront and finally heal from my past wounds.
We as individuals don’t need to have all the solutions in order to make a difference. We simply must allow our passions and, most importantly, our personal tragedies to guide us into the unknown–into the lives and circumstances of people we might otherwise never know. We need to realize that we have more inner knowledge than we might initially understand. Sometimes it’s concealed, just waiting for the right opportunity or circumstance to reveal itself. And it usually appears unexpectedly, when it’s truly needed.
Since becoming involved in the Monfils case, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet actual exonerees–those who’ve spent years behind bars for crimes they did not commit and are finally free. The amazing courage and normalcy they possess, despite the devastating trauma they’ve endured, can help us all to realize that what happened to them can and does happen to most of us on varying levels. (Again, for me, it was the prison of my childhood.)
And the assumptions we have, that we could never be caught up in the same extreme circumstances of a wrongful conviction, disappear when spending time with exonerees and seeing common irrefutable qualities in every one of them that mimic our own. Before being sent to prison, these people were full of life. They had jobs, families, houses, hobbies, pets. They spent precious time with their children, dealt with mundane household chores, and took relaxing vacations. Things we take for granted every day.
When you start to learn the details of these many cases, you become truly aware and concerned. You realize you actually could find yourself, very easily, in a similar circumstance, and sent to jail for a crime you didn’t commit.
Eyewitness misidentification is high on a laundry list of causes of wrongful convictions. Some of the more prevalent include false confessions, faulty forensic science, bad lawyering, and law enforcement misconduct. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can land you in prison for life.
The possibilities are endless and very real for each one of us, which is precisely why I’ll continue to create a necessary awareness about this issue and use my voice to represent those who no longer have one.
For me, it’s an inescapable and awe-inspiring path.
Joan Treppa can be reached at email@example.com.
For more about Joan, check out https://about.me/JoanTreppa. For more information about the book, The Monfils Conspiracy, check out http://www.sixinnocentmen.org/. And for further info about the entire Monfils case, check out http://jaredmanninen.com/truecrime.html .
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