By Gretchen Schuldt
A judge erred when he used new research into the brain development of young adults to grant Jan. 1, 2023, parole eligibility to a man previously sentenced to life without parole, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.
Existing case law prohibited Outagamie County Circuit Judge John DesJardins, now retired, from using the research as a “new factor” in Jonathan Liebzeit’s case “because the research and its conclusions were well known at the time of Liebzeit’s sentencing in 1997,” Appellate Judge Gregory B. Gill wrote for the three-judge District III Court of Appeals panel. He was joined in the opinion by Appellate Judges Lisa K. Stark and Thomas M. Hruz.
DesJardins sentenced Liebzeit in 1997 to life without parole for his role in the 1996 murder of Alex Schaffer.
Liebzeit, who had just turned 19, and two other men, Daniel Mischler and James Thompson, lured Schaffer into sewer tunnels where Liebzeit hit him repeatedly with a baseball bat, including in the head. The other two men held Schaffer in a pool of water until he stopped moving.
The medical examiner determined that Schaffer died by a combination of drowning and blunt force trauma.
The state Department of Corrections, in a pre-sentence report, noted Liebzeit’s long history of drug abuse, particularly with inhalants; his participation in a drug and alcohol treatment program; and his failed effort to get admitted to Winnebago Mental Health Institute due to suicidal tendencies.
In 2019, 22 years after sentencing Liebzeit, DesJardins attended a judicial education seminar, where he learned about new research on brain development in emerging adults. He later wrote to Liebzeit’s appellate counsel and the state “suggesting that a sentence modification may be appropriate based on new scientific research…that was not available at the time of the 1997 sentencing,” Gill wrote.
Liebzeit’s lawyer, Rex R. Anderegg, filed such a motion, citing both the new research and Liebzeit’s brain damage stemming from inhalant use. Information about the brain damage, included in a separate report concerning Liebzeit’s drug treatment, was not presented to the court at sentencing.
DesJardins held a hearing, Gill wrote.
“The court concluded that Liebzeit had proven by clear and convincing evidence that both the new scientific research on brain development in emerging adults, and Liebzeit’s brain damage resulting from his own inhalant use constituted new factors,” Gill wrote.
DesJardins found that “the impact the brain damage may have had on Liebzeit’s impulse control was relevant to whether Liebzeit was likely to be successfully rehabilitated,” Gill said. DesJardins also found that “new scientific research on brain development in emerging adults had found that individuals between 18 and 21 years old function closer to adolescents aged 13 to 17, than adults aged 22 to 25 years old.”
DesJardins eventually granted the sentence modification making Liebzeit eligible for parole Jan. 1. His case still would have to be considered by the Parole Commission.
The appeals court, however, agreed with the state that nothing showed that Liebzeit’s inhalant use contributed to his impulsivity.
“At best,” Gill wrote, “the (drug treatment) report shows that his brain damage might have affected his concentration. But the crimes for which he was convicted were not impulsive crimes caused by an inability to concentrate.” The crime was not impulsive, but planned, Gill said.
DesJardins found at the time of sentencing that Liebzeit could not be rehabilitated.
Liebzeit’s “new science” argument fails because under state Supreme Court precedent, Gill wrote, “the research cannot constitute a new factor…because the conclusions reached by the research were well known when Liebzeit was originally sentenced in 1997.”
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