By Margo Kirchner
A Racine County judge on Thursday dismissed all charges against Daniel G. Scheidell, who served 20 years in prison for sexual assault before a court finally allowed him to present evidence that strongly suggested the attack was committed by someone else.
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Mark Nielsen granted the state’s motion to dismiss, after Racine County Assistant District Attorney Dirk Jensen said the state could not meet its burden in a new trial.
One of Scheidell’s supporters in the gallery clapped as the judge dismissed the case.
Scheidell’s conviction was vacated in 2015, but Attorney General Brad Schimel’s Department of Justice unsuccessfully appealed that decision twice.
A jury convicted Scheidell in October 1995 of attempted first-degree sexual assault and armed robbery following a trial based heavily on testimony of the victim, J.D.
J.D. awoke in her apartment early one morning in May, 1995, to find a knife-wielding man straddling her waist. The perpetrator during the attempted assault wore a black knit ski mask and jacket over his head and never spoke. J.D. managed to retrieve a pistol from her nightstand and the man left.
She was certain he was her upstairs neighbor, Scheidell, based on the man’s “distinctive body and walk” and part of the face she saw while she struggled with him.
When police arrived, they found Scheidell coming down the stairs, looking like he just woke up. He gave a voluntary statement and allowed police to search his apartment, but found nothing incriminating. They searched the alley – nothing.
At trial, defense counsel sought to offer evidence of a different, similar sexual assault that occurred five weeks after the attack on J.D., when he was in custody. The second assault occurred about four blocks away from J.D.’s residence, and many of the facts of the crime, including mode of entry, weapon, mask, time of day, and build of the assailant, were similar.
The assailant in the second crime, however, got away and was not identified.
Scheidell’s trial judge denied admission of the evidence because there was not any evidence directly connecting a third person to the crime Scheidell was accused of committing.
The jury found him guilty in October 1995 and Scheidell appealed all the way up to the State Supreme Court. He lost there, with the court ruling that mistaken-identity evidence is not admissible when a defendant tries to show that some unknown person committed the crime.
Scheidell applied to the Wisconsin Innocence Project for help. In 2013, the Innocence Project obtained a DNA profile from the second sexual assault and matched the profile to a Wisconsin inmate serving time for a 1998 sexual assault.
Scheidell moved for a new trial to present evidence that a now known perpetrator committed the crime for which Scheidell had been convicted.
In June 2015, Racine County Circuit Court Judge John Jude granted the motion and vacated Scheidell’s conviction. Scheidell was released on bond shortly thereafter.
Although the state appealed, a three-judge Wisconsin Court of Appeals panel (including two conservative Gov. Scott Walker appointees) affirmed the grant of a new trial in the interest of justice.
“It is undoubtedly reasonable to conclude that this new evidence casts doubt upon whether justice was done in the original proceeding,” Appeals Judge Brian K. Hagedorn wrote in a concurring opinion. The Supreme Court denied the Schimel team’s request for review and sent the case back to Racine for a new trial.
Thursday, at a hearing set for argument on a motion to modify bond, Jensen, the assistant district attorney, moved for dismissal based on additional investigation.
Nielsen granted the motion and dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning the state could theoretically file it again. The judge gave defense attorney Patrick Cafferty until Oct. 2 to file a new motion with legal support for his position that the case should be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be filed again.
Scheidell sighed audibly several times when he approached his family and friends after the hearing.
Cafferty said that he is “thrilled for this gentleman” and attributed Scheidell’s release to the work of many lawyers.
Cafferty indicated that Scheidell’s original trial counsel, in particular Debra Patterson, worked hard to get the evidence of the second assault admitted:
“The work the lawyers did early on laid the foundation” and “they deserve the credit,” he said
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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