Note: This piece originally appeared in Isthmus on March 31, 2000.
Thomas Champion tries not to think about what's happening to him. "If I really zero in on where I am," he says through a glass partition at the Dane County jail, "I'll start crying."
But he can't escape it, and soon he's wiping tears from his eyes. "I have not seen any justice," he says of his ordeal, which recalls the experience of Joseph K. in Kafka's The Trial, or Yossarian in Catch-22. "I don't see anything happening here that is logical at all."
Champion, 54, has been incarcerated for more than eight months, including nearly six in Dane County. He is charged with multiple counts of felony failure to pay child support for his four minor children. But he has not been convicted of any crime, ever in his life.
Already, Dane County taxpayers have shelled out more than $10,000 to keep Champion in jail. The total amount of child support Champion is being prosecuted for not paying is less than $4,000.
Champion has worked and supported his children in the past, until mental illness overtook his ability to work. Now he hears voices, gets pounding headaches and cannot concentrate. He says he loves and stays in touch with his children, who range in age from 10 to 20, but can't handle the stress associated with work.
Two mental health experts who have examined Champion agree it would be difficult if not impossible for him to hold down a job. The federal Social Security Administration has declared him disabled due to mental illness. The child-support law expressly states that inability to pay is a legitimate defense.
But Champion has been barred from introducing evidence of his mental disability as an affirmative defense. Instead, Dane County Assistant District Attorney Robert Kaiser argued, and Judge Robert DeChambeau agreed, that the only avenue open to Champion is to plead insanity. That virtually assures his conviction since, says defense attorney Jane Andersen, "My client is not insane."
Andersen, assigned by the state public defender's office, has appealed the ruling, and a state appellate court has agreed to hear the case. She feels she has "a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits," and at least one legal expert agrees.
"It seems there is a clear misapplication of the law," says Kristin Kerschensteiner, managing attorney for the nonprofit Wisconsin Coalition of Advocacy. "I have every confidence the appellate court will overturn it." Even the attorney general's office, charged with defending the state's position, is ambivalent about how the law was applied.
But for now Champion is, in Andersen's words, "rotting in jail." Housed in a group cell with 48 inmates, he receives no mental health treatment or services--except, he says, from a psychologist who was briefly jailed. Champion also has severe physical ailments, including tumors throughout his body.
In all, Champion is charged with nine counts of felony failure to pay support, for which he faces a total of 18 years in prison. This is because prosecutor Kaiser brought additional charges against Champion for subsequent 120-day periods, as the law allows. Only this time, he charged Champion with separate counts for each of the four children for whom he owes support.
This despite the fact that Kaiser, earlier this month, pointedly disavowed any interest in whether Champion's children receive support, saying his only role was to see that Champion is punished.
This, says Anderson, is a case "of a DA gone mad and a judge who's let him."
Thomas Randall Champion is a California native who moved to Wisconsin in the mid-1970s. He bought a farm in Waushara County and worked a number of jobs, including a five-year stint as a real estate broker running his own firm, Champion Realty. Says Champion, "I always paid taxes, worked seven days a week."
In 1989, his marriage of 11 years disintegrated. For a while he had custody of his two oldest children, and owed no support. In 1993, he lost custody of the kids, precipitating a mental breakdown: "My whole life fell apart."
Champion returned to California, where he began receiving treatment for mental illness. The last time he held a full-time job was in 1994, and then only for a month. According to a report prepared last fall by Madison psychologist Dianne Lytton, Champion's mental disorders-including "severe depression with symptoms of impaired concentration and memory"--have "seriously impaired his ability to work."
And Dr. Raymond Kilduff, a staff psychologist with Alameda County, wrote that Champion, who he has treated since 1995, suffers from major depression and auditory hallucinations due to a kind of psychosis: "At no time during the time I saw Mr. Champion did I consider him capable of any kind of sustained work. His stress intolerance to people and any kind of pressure is severe. Furthermore, his symptoms impair his concentration, memory and general cognition."
Despite his inability to work, Champion says he paid monthly child-support payments of $250 (later raised to $320) for several years until January 1997, going deep into debt and exacerbating his level of stress. Finally, he says, "My doctors advised me to stop paying."
Champion's ex-wife, who lives in Madison, signed a complaint about his failure to pay support in January 1998. He was in town at the time, visiting his children, but returned to California while the legal drama played on. That July, a status conference was held in which Champion initially had the court's permission to appear by phone. He called twice, but prosecutor Kaiser was late; when he called a third time, the conference was over, and a warrant had been issued for his arrest. (On Feb. 14, the day the jury was supposed to be picked, this bail-jumping charge was dismissed, at Kaiser's request.)
In July 1999, Champion was arrested in Alameda, Calif., where he owns a small boat that serves as his home. In early October, he was extradited to Dane County. Bail was set at about $9,000, well beyond Champion's means.
Kaiser filed a motion to bar evidence of Champion's mental disability from being introduced in a single-phase trial. In a brief, he contended that if Champion is mentally disabled, he must invoke the defense of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect-i.e., insanity.
On Nov. 22, a motion hearing was held before Judge DeChambeau. Andersen argued that Kaiser was misapplying case law and the insanity statute. But DeChambeau, a former Dane County assistant DA whose wife, Gretchen Hayward, is a current assistant DA, sided with Kaiser. DeChambeau ruled there had to be a bifurcated trial, during the first portion of which no testimony would be allowed regarding Champion's disability or its impact on his ability to work. DeChambeau even admitted that the law as he was applying it amounted to a double standard.
"Granted, if it was a physical disability," he told Andersen, "you would be able to introduce that evidence." But since the disability was mental in nature, Champion's only recourse was to plead insanity. "[M]y hands are, quite frankly, tied, at least I believe they are," said DeChambeau. "I could be wrong."
Andersen has no doubt of it, saying she was dumbfounded by DeChambeau's ruling. "Most law is logical, most law makes sense," she says. "This had my jaw hanging open."
The insanity defense, notes Kerschensteiner of the Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, "is based on the concept that you didn't know right from wrong when you did the act, which is not at all what they're saying." She also thinks it's unreasonable to use the insanity statute to deny Champion the means to defend himself under the child-support statute, which entails a lesser burden of proof.
Andersen petitioned the 4th District Court of Appeals. (For this pleading, check Document Feed at www.isthmus.com.) The court agreed to hear the case after the state, now represented by the attorney general's office, said it had no objection. Assistant Attorney General James Freimuth says his office hasn't decided what position it will take on the merits: "We see some questions that we need to really investigate, and some legal issues we need to think about. We're not exactly sure who's right."
On March 15, Andersen argued a motion before Judge DeChambeau to reduce Champion's bail, so he could be released pending the resolution of his appeal. She noted that his continued incarceration jeopardized his eligibility for SSI payments and greatly complicated his efforts to obtain SSDI, which would provide additional money that would go directly to support his children.
Andersen urged the judge to be mindful of the underlining purpose of the child-support statute-to ensure that money goes to kids.
Kaiser, in turn, sharply dissented. "My job is to punish defendants for crimes they have committed," he said, according to a partial transcript provided by the court reporter. "I am no one's collection agency. I am not here to collect money. ...My job is to punish people for crimes, and that is what I am doing here. This is not about collecting money for children."
Andersen and Champion say Kaiser was shouting and pounding on the table as he spoke, although the court reporter doesn't recall this. (Kaiser did not return a phone call.) When Andersen proceeded to press her case, she says DeChambeau threatened her with contempt and blamed her for the fact that Champion was still in jail, because she had disagreed with his rulings.
DeChambeau again sided with Kaiser, ensuring that Champion stays in jail. Andersen says the judge claimed that, since the matter had been appealed, he was powerless to reduce bail. She has since filed a motion for reconsideration, and if that fails, will appeal.
"I just want to get my client out of jail," she says. "He doesn't deserve this."