Joseph Awe is challenging his arson conviction in U.S. District Court in Madison on the grounds his trial attorney was ineffective, the methodology used to declare the fire at Awe's Harrisville tavern was flawed and his rights were violated when the state used insurance company-paid experts to build their criminal case.
Awe, of Friendship, is serving a 12-year sentence, including three years' confinement, after he was convicted of being party to the crime of arson for the fire that destroyed J.J.'s Pub in 2006. Marquette County District Attorney Richard Dufour alleged Awe or someone directed by him set fire to the tavern 65 miles north of Madison. Awe has maintained his innocence, saying the fire likely was sparked by the 130-year-old building's faulty electrical system.
Wisconsin Department of Justice spokesman Bill Cosh declined comment on the petition, which asks that Awe, 40, be released from Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution. It argues the state's use of investigators hired by Awe's insurer, Mt. Morris Mutual Insurance Co., was improper.
"The state of Wisconsin utilized the skills of privately paid, private investigators with a special interest in the outcome of the case to conduct the investigation, in violation of Awe's right of due process," the petition charges.
Awe's appeal, filed by attorney Robert Baranowski of Madison, argues his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to introduce evidence Awe and his wife were not financially ailing, as an insurance company-paid accountant testified, and witnesses placed him 35 miles away when the blaze started.
The petition argues the state's arson determination was based on a flawed "process of elimination" that required Awe to prove his innocence rather than prosecutors to prove his guilt.
"None of the experts (even those employed by Mt. Morris) produced any positive evidence of arson. Furthermore, no evidence was adduced at trial that place Awe (or, in fact, any perpetrator) at the scene of the crime ... requiring the defendant to present positive evidence of a non-crime, a logical non-sequitur that places innocent citizens in a no-win bind."