Blaine resident advocates for wrongfully convicted
For the past eight years, Blaine resident Joan Treppa has been crusading for the release of five Wisconsin men who she felt were wrongfully convicted for the 1992 death of a co-worker.
Treppa wrote “Reclaiming Lives: Pursuing Justice for Six Innocent Men,” which American Book Fest recently recognized as the best book for 2017 in the category of True Crime: Non-Fiction.
The book centers around the death of Tom Monfils and the convictions of six men, but it also raises awareness that there are many innocent men and women behind bars.
One life sentence was overturned well before Treppa became involved and another man was released a few months ago due to poor health, but four of the “Monfils Six” are still serving life sentences.
“This was a wrong that still needs to be set right,” Treppa said.
“The book was to tell the story of what I call the collateral damage of wrongful convictions, which is the wrongfully accused, their families and loved ones,” she said. “I felt it was time that their voices be heard because as soon as you’re sent to prison nobody listens to you anymore. My role has been to be an outside voice for these people.”
Treppa self-published the book, which can be purchased through Amazon.
The Monfils case
Tom Monfils, 35, was found dead on Nov. 21, 1992, in a pulp vat at the James River mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin. A weight was tied around his neck and investigators said his body had also been beaten.
Six men were arrested April 12, 1995, more than two years after Monfils died. They were all charged with first-degree murder. They were tried and sentenced later that year to life in prison.
Senior federal U.S. District Court Judge Myron Gordon in 2001 ruled that the evidence against Mike Piaskowski was insufficient to sustain a conviction and he was released from prison five-and-a-half years after his conviction.
Dale Basten, 76, was granted parole in September 2017 due to poor health and he is now in an assisted living facility in Wisconsin.
Michael Hirn, 53, Michael Johnson, 70, Keith Kutzka, 66, and Reynold Moore, 71, are now in four separate medium-security prisons in Wisconsin, Treppa said.
Denis Gullickson and John Gaie wrote “The Monfils Conspiracy: The Conviction of Six Innocent Men” in 2009. Treppa could not just put the book down and forget what she had read.
As a child, Treppa was the frequent victim of bullies. While she was reading Gullickson’s book, she felt the legal system that strives for fair and balanced judgment had bullied these six blue-collar men by selectively highlighting facts that built the case against these men while leaving out other information that may have left reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.
“These men were labeled as murderers and union thugs without people knowing the real facts,” she said.
Treppa became involved with the Minnesota Innocence Project, which strives to free the wrongfully convicted. The national non-profit organization, Innocence Project, was founded in 1992.
The National Registry of Exonerations reports 2,145 exonerations and more than 18,750 years lost on its website. Eyewitness misidentification, false confessions and misapplications of forensic science are the leading reasons why innocent people are sent to prison.
Kutska was granted an evidentiary hearing in a Wisconsin courtroom in 2015. His attorneys wanted to present a theory that Monfils had committed suicide.
James Bayorgeon, the Wisconsin judge who heard the original cases in 1995, came out of retirement to hear the new information and decided that a new trial would not be granted for Kutzka.
The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the highest court decided in October 2017 that it would not hear Kutska’s appeal.
Treppa was not surprised that the U.S. Supreme Court. It only hears 100 to 150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year.
But she was frustrated that Bayorgeon did not grant a new trial and believed he had made up his mind in advance.
“His demeanor, his body language, his attitude just told me he wasn’t going to do anything for Keith Kutska,” Treppa said.
Treppa said a jury should have heard from Cal Monfils*, Tom’s younger brother, that the knot of the rope tied around Tom Monfils was a knot that Monfils had learned in the Coast Guard. Cal Monfils* had informed the lead detective, Randy Winkler, of this in 1992.
Kutzka’s team tried to discredit Winkler’s integrity in this investigation. One woman testified that when she was a child, Winkler had forced her father to sign a statement saying he had witnessed a confrontation between Monfils and Kutzka. Otherwise, she would be turned over the social services. The woman testified in court in 2015 that this had happened, but Winkler denied on the stand that this happened.
Another item that Bayorgeon would not admit as new evidence in consideration of a new trial was a forensic pathologist’s testimony that the coroner could not have determined whether Monfils had been murdered or killed himself based on the condition of the body.
Blaine classroom visit
Sketch artists are sometimes used by the police when they are looking for a suspect that they do not have a photo of and relied on eyewitnesses to describe this person.
While this is only one piece of the puzzle the police use to catch a suspect, Treppa illustrated how dangerous it can be to rely on it.
During a visit last year to a Blaine High School criminal justice class, Treppa showed an FBI sketch artist rendering of the man who detonated a truck bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people and injured more than 680.
Treppa put this sketch art between two photos of military service members and asked the students to identify the correct photo of the man responsible for the bombing. About two-thirds of the students pointed the finger at the wrong man, who just happens to be Treppa’s son. None of the students had been born at the time of the bombing, or whenTimothy McVeigh was executed in 2001.
But back in 1995 when the news media showed the artist rendering before McVeigh was positively identified, some of Treppa’s friends and family called her to say the sketch resembled her son, who at the time of the bombing was serving in the military in California. They of course knew he was innocent, but Treppa dreads to think that her son could have somehow been dragged into the investigation had he been serving on an Oklahoma base in April 1995.
It is impossible to know how many innocent people are in prison. Treppa asked the Blaine High School class for their best guesses and one student believed there was one innocent person for every 10 people in prison.
“With a prison population of 2.4 million in this country that could be as many as 200,000 (innocent) people in prison. That’s a lot of people,” she said. “And a lot of them will never be heard.”
*The article originally said “Ken” Monfils, but this is incorrect. Tom Monfils’ brother’s name is Cal Monfils.Posted on: January 9, 2018Jared Manninen