Citing media reports that raise doubts about the prosecution, the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday asked for additional arguments on whether it should order a lower court to reconsider the murder conviction of John Maloney "in the interest of justice."
Maloney, a former Green Bay police detective, was convicted in 1999 of strangling his estranged wife, Sandra, formerly of Madison, and setting her body on fire. He is serving a life term at Dodge Correctional Institution.
In its opinion released Friday, the court shot down arguments by Maloney's attorney that his trial attorney was ineffective and that now-imprisoned former Winnebago County District Attorney Joseph Paulus used unethical and illegal methods to prosecute him.
But the justices appeared troubled by problems in the case highlighted by the Wisconsin State Journal and "48 Hours," the CBS television news show. The court also cited the fact that the Department of Justice, which is handling the appeal, has an ongoing investigation into numerous allegations of misconduct against Paulus.
Noting that Maloney's appeal hadn't raised the issue, the justices said they wanted to hear arguments about the possibility of ordering more proceedings. Writing for the court, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley asked the two sides, represented by Assistant Attorney General Daniel O'Brien and defense attorney Lew Wasserman of Milwaukee, to submit arguments on the matter.
Maloney's sister, Gin Maloney of Green Bay, said the decision opened the door to more evidence that Maloney was wrongfully prosecuted by Paulus, currently in prison for taking bribes to fix cases.
"I think it's good news. We're not defeated," Gin Maloney said. "I think it opens up a whole new area of exactly what we've been trying to say ... they (justices) need to see the whole picture. Now it seems like you can get to the meat and potatoes of it."
Virginia paralegal Sheila Martin Berry also found hope in the ruling. She asked several forensic experts to examine the evidence, and all have concluded that Sandra Maloney's death and the fire were accidents. In February, a Madison defense attorney hired by the state Justice Department disagreed, saying the ruling of death by strangulation was accurate.
"It ... appears that the Supreme Court understands the egregious injustice suffered by this man and wishes to grant him relief -- with all the i's dotted and the t's crossed," said Berry, who formerly worked for Paulus and now runs a group called Truth in Justice that publicizes wrongful convictions.
Maloney said he was "elated" by the news that the justices were willing to take a closer look at his case. He said Friday's ruling was the best news he has had since he was arrested in 1998.
"I think they (justices) are seeing through some of the smokescreen" put up by Paulus, Maloney said. "They (justices) are going a step beyond ... they didn't have to do what they're doing."
Wasserman was less optimistic. He agreed the "very unusual" decision allows him to raise additional questions about the case. But Wasserman said proving a case should be retried "in the interest of justice" is hard to do, adding, "it's rarely granted."
State Justice Department spokesman Scot Ross declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate since the case is still pending.
Wasserman said he was disappointed the justices "didn't understand the full nature of the conspiracy" between Paulus and Maloney's former girlfriend, Tracy Hellenbrand, who allowed authorities to videotape her and Maloney in a Las Vegas motel room.
That tape, which Paulus labeled his key piece of evidence, has come under increasing scrutiny amid allegations that the former prosecutor may have tampered with it.
Paulus claimed the tape showed Maloney "confessed." Maloney has said the statements on the tape were taken out of context to make it appear he confessed to being at Sandra's small ranch-style home on Feb. 10, 1998, the night she died.
Referring to the "48 Hours" report, the justices said Paulus was "personally involved in the editing process" of the tape and ordered $27,000 worth of editing by an outside firm. The court cited documents indicating "some of Paulus' clips were so short that they seemed choppy."
Gin Maloney said she was glad to see the justices recognize the problems with the tape.
"We knew there was something wrong with those," Maloney said, adding that if the tape was tampered with, "How can they (justices) believe this is an up-and-up case?"
The justices also referred to articles published in March 2004 in the State Journal quoting former Brown County coroner, Dr. Gregory Schmunk, as saying Paulus withheld key pieces of evidence from him. Among the evidence Schmunk said he never saw: initial reports from the Green Bay Fire Department and the Brown County Arson Task Force that the fire was accidentally caused by careless smoking by Sandra Maloney.
\ Contact Dee J. Hall at email@example.com or 252-6132.
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