Jennifer Hancock in court

Jennifer Hancock, right, appears in court Thursday with her lawyers, Craig Benson, left, and Carrie Sperling. 

Testimony started Thursday in what is slated to be four days of testimony that will help determine whether a Verona woman, convicted of homicide in 2009 for the death of a 4-month-old boy who was in her care, will get a new trial.

Lawyers for Jennifer L. Hancock, 49, who is serving a 13-year prison sentence for first-degree reckless homicide for the 2007 death of Lincoln Wilber, began putting on witnesses, starting with Dr. Michael Stier, a UW-Madison forensic pathologist whose testimony helped convict Hancock, but has since changed the interpretation of his findings and now believes Lincoln was not the victim of child abuse.

Lincoln was at Hancock’s home day care on Sept. 7, 2007, when he became unresponsive. Hancock called 911, and Lincoln was taken to UW Children’s Hospital, where he remained until Sept. 11, when his parents, learning he would never recover, decided to take him off life support.

Hancock was charged with reckless homicide three months later and went to trial, where she was convicted.

With new medical evidence, day care provider convicted of child abuse homicide seeks new trial

Rock County Circuit Judge Daniel Dillon is hearing Hancock’s motion after it was initially assigned to a Dane County judge. The judge who originally heard the case, David Flanagan, has retired.

Stier remained on the witness stand for the entire day, most of it undergoing cross-examination by special prosecutor Brian Holmgren, who was until 2015 a prosecutor in the Davidson County district attorney’s office in Nashville, Tennessee. According to media reports, Holmgren was fired amid allegations that he made sterilization of women part of some plea negotiations in cases involving child abuse or neglect, though the district attorney did not comment at the time on the reason for Holmgren’s dismissal.

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Key witness changes his view about 2007 infant-death case

In late October, prosecutors asked that Holmgren be admitted to the case, a move opposed by Hancock’s lawyers, who mentioned the plea negotiation allegations in their brief. Deputy District Attorney Matthew Moeser and Assistant District Attorney Erin Hanson are also assigned to the case.

Hancock, assisted by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, filed a motion in February to overturn Hancock’s conviction and order a new trial. In addition to what they allege was errant medical testimony that attributed Lincoln’s death to abuse, they also cited “deficient performances” by Hancock’s trial attorney, John Hyland, who is now a Dane County judge, and from Hancock’s appellate lawyers, along with improper jury instructions delivered by Flanagan.

In an affidavit that was filed with Hancock’s motion in February, Hyland wrote that he had misjudged the prosecution theory of the case, thinking it was alleging shaken baby syndrome when its theory was actually abusive head trauma had caused Lincoln’s death. But by then, he wrote, it was too late to find an effective expert witness to counter the state’s experts.

In an 85-page response to the motion, filed in late August, Moeser argued that Hancock’s legal representation by Hyland was not deficient because Hyland had made timely attempts, though unsuccessful, to counter the state’s theory of the case. Moeser also wrote that Hancock had not presented any newly discovered evidence that warrants a new trial.

Testimony in the hearing is scheduled to continue Friday, then pick up again on Dec. 19 and 20 before Dillon, who would ultimately decide whether to vacate Hancock’s conviction.

According to the state Department of Corrections, Hancock’s prison sentence will end in April 2022, and she’ll remain on extended supervision until April 2029.

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