Editor's note: Last week, Isthmus published an "Open Letter to the DA's Office" by news editor Bill Lueders. The column raised questions about the prosecution of Forest Shomberg, whose conviction for sexual assault was overturned after he spent six years in prison.
The column asked about the office's efforts to keep Shomberg in prison, using the same evidence it later decided was insufficient to merit a retrial. The column also challenged the office's handling of other recent cases, including that of Audrey Edmunds, freed in 2008 after serving 11 years of a maximum 12, and Ralph Armstrong, whose 1981 murder conviction was overturned last year on grounds of prosecutorial misconduct.
Before the column was published, Isthmus invited Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard and Deputy District Attorney Judy Schwaemle to reply: They did, as follows.
We're accountable to the public, which expects public protection and rightly also cares about the just and fair application of the criminal laws. We have to get it right, which means convicting those who are provably guilty and addressing any claims of innocence promptly and effectively.This is what we try hard to do every day.
We have a proven track record of honestly and openly addressing errors, and also working to improve the accuracy of the criminal justice system. We have in recent years urged police to use sequential photo identification procedures and record a much greater percentage of suspect and some victim interviews, to cite just two examples of improvements.
As you have documented in detail, our record also includes the eventual vindication of Patty Murphy and the conviction of Joseph Bong after this office initially committed serious errors.
Audrey Edmunds was granted a new trial because a purported dispute emerged in the medical community about the causes of head trauma, and the Court of Appeals decided that a jury could find this new theory sufficiently credible to raise a reasonable doubt about her conviction. Neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeals found that the expert testimony used to secure Edmunds' conviction was unreliable, as your column stated.
On the contrary, the trial court found, after hearing all the evidence in a very detailed and extensive multi-day hearing, that the theory propounded by the state's experts carried far greater weight than that advanced by the defense experts.
As for the Ralph Armstrong case, we carefully examined the errors found by the trial court in that case.These were largely case-specific, but all the same we have heeded their broader lesson, and taken steps to see that they not be repeated. This includes documenting and forwarding to investigators information from any source claiming to have information about a case, no matter how incredible and no matter how many years after conviction.
Also, addressing the finding that evidence was not handled properly, we intend to challenge future defense requests for unorthodox evidence handling procedures that would create unreasonable and impractical requirements for investigators, Crime Lab analysts and prosecutors.
We will just have disagree about whether the trial record supports or undermines your treatment of the Forest Shomberg case.
The criminal justice project is a human one, and therefore always to some degree fallible.We approach our work with humility and great respect for a system of justice that is specifically designed to sort the factually innocent from those guilty of crime, erring on the side of allowing the guilty to go free to avoid the risk of conviction of the innocent.
We respond promptly to inquiries from the media and members of the public on a regular basis, and will continue to welcome coverage by Isthmus or any other media regarding any aspect of the criminal justice system that informs the public about this important aspect of their government.
Blanchard is district attorney of Dane County; Schwaemle is a deputy district attorney.