Did Paulus cheat to get convictions?
11:46 PM 5/08/04
Dee J. Hall Wisconsin State Journal
OSHKOSH - Mark Price's two children have grown up and his hair has turned gray in the 14 years since Joseph Paulus sent him to prison for murder.
During that time, Price has fought an uphill battle trying to prove he was framed by Paulus, the former Winnebago County district attorney who pleaded guilty last month to taking bribes to fix cases.
As shocking as the bribery scandal is, the full story behind Paulus' tenure in the Fox River Valley is even more disturbing, said Bill Lennon, who beat Paulus in 2002 to become district attorney.
Lennon said his office has been alerted to dozens of instances in which Paulus might have lied to the police, other attorneys and judges and withheld key evidence to win cases to boost his political career.
As a result, Price - a 45-year-old former drug dealer who admits hiding a body but denies taking part in the murder - might finally get his day in court.
An assistant district attorney says it's "pretty cut and dried" that Paulus withheld key evidence that raised serious doubts about the truthfulness of the witnesses who fingered Price as the murderer.
"Any information about the credibility (of witnesses) is crucial," Winnebago County Assistant District Attorney Mike Balskus said.
The case involving Price is among roughly 20 Lennon has forwarded to the state Department of Justice for investigation to determine whether Paulus used unethical or illegal tactics to win trials during his 14 years in office.
"I'm not wanting a pound of flesh so much as I want some answers," said Lennon who, like Paulus, is a Republican. "There are questions and concerns that we've heard over the years - allegations that, if true, would be misconduct."
The criminal-justice system relies on prosecutors to be truthful and to divulge all relevant evidence, said Keith Findley, co-director of the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "When they don't do that - or when they distort what they have - the system is really in crisis," Findley said.
The allegations surrounding Paulus should prompt state policymakers to "seize the moment" to determine what additional checks and balances need to be placed on district attorneys in Wisconsin, said Walter Dickey, a UW-Madison law professor and former state corrections secretary.
"The fact of the matter is," Dickey said, "we have too much power in the hands of the prosecutor."
Former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske said the allegations surrounding Paulus should prompt the state to examine why his transgressions didn't come to light sooner.
"It is a frightening set of facts that somebody is so out of control and this kind of thing can go on for so long," said Geske, now a law professor at Marquette University. "For whatever reason, the systems that were in place didn't work. The system did fail."
Bribery scandal surfaces
Paulus was a handsome young attorney just four years out of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., in 1988 when he was elected district attorney. The tough-on-crime Republican and Oshkosh native quickly developed a close rapport with the local press, who dubbed him "Hollywood Joe."
Early in his tenure, which ran from 1989 to 2003, questions began to surface about his integrity. But Paulus always had an explanation - and a counterattack. His pattern when challenged was to launch investigations, discredit his critics or, in the case of employees, to fire them.
But in 2002, word of the FBI bribery investigation leaked out, and a tape of Paulus bragging of having sex in his office was released by a political opponent. Voters removed him from office.
Now Paulus, 44, is headed off to federal prison. He was convicted April 26 on two federal bribery-related charges for taking nearly $50,000 between 1998 and 2000 to fix 22 cases for clients of Milton "Mitch" Schierland. Schierland, 47, plans to plead guilty to tax evasion.
Paulus' deal calls for a maximum 33 months in prison for fixing the cases, mostly drunken-driving matters. State officials say Paulus also faces possible state charges for the bribery scheme. And he could be hit with additional charges or penalties if the state probe uncovers other malfeasance.
Paulus' attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, said Paulus won't discuss any allegations of misconduct. However, "He has told me that he never did anything that was, in his view, anything less than vigorously represent the interests of the state of Wisconsin ... in vigorously prosecuting people who have committed crimes," said Gimbel, of Milwaukee.
Some records missing
Among the cases Winnebago County has sent to the state:
° A highly publicized 1990 rape case against Mark A. Peterson in which Paulus concealed information about the key witness that cast doubt on the witness' credibility. Shortly after Peterson's conviction, the verdict was set aside. New evidence shows Paulus was working on deals to make money on the case within days of filing charges.
° A 1992 case in which Joel Samida was held for rape and kidnapping even after Paulus obtained DNA evidence clearing him. Samida spent a year at the Winnebago Mental Health Institute before he was released.
° The 1999 conviction of Green Bay police officer John Maloney for murdering his wife and setting her body on fire. Maloney contends Paulus ignored evidence indicating Sandra Maloney's death and the fire at her home might have been accidents.
Balskus said his office also has asked the state to look into why numerous court, police and prosecutors' records in questionable cases are now missing. Among the lost records: Sheriff's department reports from the early 1990s in which Paulus was accused by his former wife of stalking her.
Assistant Attorney General William Hanrahan, who is leading the state probe into possible misconduct, vowed to "follow the evidence where it leads" to determine "how far the tentacles of corruption have reached into the criminal-justice system in Winnebago County."
Predicted Balskus: "Most of the high-profile cases that Joe Paulus prosecuted are going to be re-examined."
Murder case questioned
Already, the state has begun re-evaluating the case against Maloney, who has spent five years in prison after his estranged wife was found dead on Feb. 11, 1998, in her home following a fire in the living room. In January, Madison criminal-defense lawyer Stephen Meyer was hired to review the handling of the case by Paulus and his protg, former Outagamie County District Attorney Vince Biskupic.
Meyer said he plans to examine evidence in the case, including expert evaluations done at the request of Maloney's supporters after the conviction that conclude the fire and Sandra Maloney's death were accidents. His goal: To determine whether Maloney, 47, deserves a new trial.
Pieces of the case already have begun to unravel. Former Brown County Coroner Dr. Gregory Schmunk, now the chief forensic pathologist in Stanislaus County, Calif., said in March he no longer stands by his ruling that Sandra Maloney was strangled to death because Paulus withheld key evidence from him.
John's sister, Gin Maloney, watched with grim satisfaction in the federal courtroom in Green Bay last month as Paulus pleaded guilty to bribery.
"Paulus will never get enough time (in prison) to justify what he did to John and our family," said Gin Maloney, who's raising her brother's three teenage sons while Maloney serves a life term at Dodge Correctional Institution.
Said John Maloney: "Joe Paulus wanted to move up to become a federal prosecutor - that's what his motivation was in this. I think I was maliciously prosecuted by Joe Paulus for his personal gain."
DNA evidence withheld
Joel Samida was a troubled 28-year-old loner when Paulus charged him in 1992 with raping and kidnapping a woman from an Oshkosh park. Samida, who has schizophrenia, had been identified as the attacker by the victim.
In September 1992, Samida was found incompetent to stand trial and was sent to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute, public defender John Kuech said. A year later, Kuech learned Paulus had withheld results of a DNA test that excluded Samida as a suspect.
"Once you get something to exclude him (Samida), the district attorney - any district attorney - had an obligation to disclose it," said Kuech, who now heads the state public defender's office in Oshkosh.
If another attorney hadn't seen the prosecutor's file, he said, "You could very well see that ... Joel Samida might still be sitting in prison."
In addition to the DNA evidence, Samida's father, Ralph, said Paulus knew that two friends of the victim had come forward to say the woman had fabricated the story. Paulus also was aware that three bartenders would testify Joel was at a bar during the time of the alleged rape, Samida said.
But Paulus wasn't interested, he said. Balskus said he can't confirm what evidence Paulus had since the prosecutor's file for that case is now missing.
"Paulus called in Channel 5 or Channel 2 and blew it right up," Ralph Samida said. "He had it on TV and everything, so Paulus wasn't gonna back down.
"It was a bad, bad deal."
Samida was freed after spending a year in lock-up for a crime he didn't commit, Kuech said.
'A household name'
In 1990, Paulus prosecuted a 29-year-old grocery bagger, Mark A. Peterson, for allegedly raping a woman with multiple-personality disorder. The case fell apart soon after Peterson's conviction.
In the widely covered trial, Winnebago County Circuit Judge Robert Hawley called out the various personalities within the 26-year-old victim. After Peterson's conviction, the woman was preparing to move out of the home of victim-witness coordinator Sheila Carmichael. She revealed a secret Paulus had asked her to keep.
The woman said she was having sex with the key witness, who took advantage of her by calling out one of her promiscuous personalities - the same behavior for which Peterson would soon be sent to prison.
Carmichael, who remarried and now goes by the name Berry, said she confronted Paulus the next day.
"He didn't want the information out," Berry said in a sworn affidavit filed with the court. "He told me the ongoing sexual relationship (between the victim and witness) ... 'would really screw up the Peterson case if it were known' and that he was not going to do anything about it.
"As I got my coat to leave, he (Paulus) stood in the door of his office and said, 'Sheila, I'll deny it.' "
Within days of revealing the relationship, Berry was suspended and then fired by Paulus. He claimed she was working on a deal to profit from sale of the victim's story - a charge that Berry, now a paralegal in Virginia, denied.
After the information came out, Peterson's verdict was reversed. He was never retried.
Last year, Balskus discovered a new wrinkle in the long-dormant case: Letters in the prosecutor's file show Paulus was negotiating movie or TV deals to profit from the case within days of filing charges against Peterson.
"At one point, he (Paulus) told me, 'This (case) is going to make me a household name,' " Berry said.
Peterson, who had led a quiet life before the charges were filed, was "devastated" and "traumatized" by the case, said Mary Lou Robinson, the Appleton defense attorney who took the case right after Peterson's conviction.
"That case was so dirty," Robinson said. "He (Paulus) ruined people."
The wrong man?
Mark Price is the first to admit that he was "no angel." But, he said, he's no murderer.
Price acknowledges being at Richard Pease's Oshkosh apartment on Dec. 22, 1989, when 30-year-old Michael Fitzgibbon of Neenah was shot. And he admits helping shove Fitzgibbon's body under the ice of Lake Buttes des Morts, pressured by the men who'd just shot Fitzgibbon. But Price denies he killed Fitzgibbon.
Both Pease and star witness Todd Crawford admitted in court that they shot Fitzgibbon. Pease got life in prison. Crawford testified that Price savagely beat then also shot Fitzgibbon. Crawford was never charged.
"I didn't kill Mike," Price said during an interview at Green Bay Correctional Institution. "There wasn't a mark on him. He was never beaten by me or by anybody."
In fact, the body was so unremarkable that Oshkosh police and the Winnebago County coroner assumed Fitzgibbon drowned when he was found in March 1990. Then-Coroner Michael Stelter said he noticed a wound to Fitzgibbon's head. Stelter said he intended to have the body autopsied, but it was cremated before it could be examined.
Two months later, a tipster alerted police that Fitzgibbon had been murdered. Stelter said after the tip came in that Paulus asked him to say that he'd done an extensive examination of Fitzgibbon's body. Stelter refused.
Price was sentenced to life in prison for murder, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Balskus said it's now clear that Paulus kept secret questionable deals he reached with some of the witnesses.
After accumulating thousands of pages of documents about his case, Price is relieved someone in authority is finally looking at it.
"The truth is going to prevail," Price said. "People are listening. People are now realizing that Paulus ... is corrupt."
Contact Dee J. Hall at email@example.com or 252-6132.
||Truth in Justice