Wisconsin State Journal

April 30, 2005

Man freed; murder charge is dropped

by Dee J. Hall

JUNEAU - Declaring that his prayers had been answered, an emotional Evan Zimmerman left the Dodge County Courthouse Friday a free man after the murder case against him was dropped.

Eau Claire County District Attorney Rich White asked a judge Friday to throw out the case mid-trial, saying he lacked the evidence to show "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Zimmerman had killed his former girlfriend.

White told Eau Claire County Circuit Judge Benjamin Proctor he understood the impact of halting the trial at this stage, including a ban on charging Zimmerman again in the crime.
Evan Zimmerman and his attorneys
Evan Zimmerman, center, hugs his attorneys, Keith Belzer (left) and Keith Findley (right) after prosecutor dropped charges.

It was the second trial for Monona native Zimmerman, whose conviction in the murder of Kathleen Thompson, 38, of Eau Claire, was overturned in 2003 after the state's 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled he didn't get a fair trial.

After the short hearing was adjourned, Zimmerman, 58, grabbed his attorneys, Keith Belzer of La Crosse and Keith Findley, a UW-Madison law professor, in a tear-filled embrace. He later held up a white T-shirt declaring "Freed by the Wisconsin Innocence Project."

Zimmerman of La Crosse spent 3 years in prison before he was released on bond last year. Zimmerman is the fourth inmate freed through the efforts of Findley's group, the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which operates out of the UW-Madison Law School.

Watching the trial were Zimmerman's three children, their spouses, a handful of supporters and about half a dozen UW-Madison law students who'd worked on his case. The trial, which began Monday, had been scheduled to last two weeks. It had been moved 200 miles from Eau Claire to Juneau to avoid pretrial publicity.

Asked what he planned to do next, the former Augusta police officer joked, "I'm just gonna take a long nap and do my laundry. It's been a long time."

Speaking after the hearing, Belzer said the defense team never wavered in its belief that Zimmerman had been wrongfully convicted. Findley added that Friday's move to dismiss the charge even before White had put on his entire case "fortified that belief."

White's prosecution was based primarily on Zimmerman's past romantic relationship with Thompson and the belief by Eau Claire police that he'd been inconsistent in his statements about where he was on Feb. 26, 2000, when Thompson was strangled and left on an Eau Claire street.

Thompson was last seen at 3 a.m. walking from the Eau Claire County Jail, where she had been taken along with her husband after the two had a violent fight just hours after their wedding. The husband was in jail at the time of the murder and never considered a suspect.

Zimmerman's son, Shannon, said his father's jumbled statements stemmed from the fact that he was in an alcoholic haze at the time of the crime and during subsequent police interviews. He said the case against his father consisted of "out-of-context statements, misleading statements and very, very shaky facts."

Last summer, White's case was bolstered when police found a single hair from a dog that could have come from Zimmerman's dog, Boots, in a bag of evidence taken from Thompson's bra. But Findley strongly challenged that evidence, forcing White's expert witness to acknowledge the hair could've come from a number of dogs.

The defense also challenged the police theory that Zimmerman killed Thompson in his minivan, noting that not a single dog hair was found on her black sweater or jeans although the interior of the vehicle was covered in hair from Boots.

In asking for the dismissal, White said his ability to prove his case had become "untenable," adding that he had an "ethical obligation at this juncture to dismiss this charge."

Belzer said White's motion "is the closest you can get to an exoneration." He said Zimmerman's second trial "resembled everything that's good and true about American justice . . . because ultimately an innocent man was given a second chance."

However, Findley added that the cost to Zimmerman was high.

"I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that Evan lost an awful lot in the process," Findley said. "He was in prison for 3 years. He suffered a stroke in prison. He lost everything he had. So he's got to rebuild now."

Findley said he believes the Eau Claire police developed "tunnel vision" about the case and refused to change direction even after DNA and other physical evidence pointed away from Zimmerman and their theory of how Thompson was murdered.

Eau Claire Police Chief Jerry Matysik defended his department's investigation and noted that the first jury convicted Zimmerman. He attributed Friday's dismissal to a successful defense strategy to "inject doubt" into the case and the difficulty in proving a case so long after the crime.

"Obviously, we felt we focused on the right person," Matysik said.

However, Belzer said, "I don't think the evidence showed anything except that there's no way that he (Zimmerman) did this."

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