Piaskowski stays free

The record is devoid of any evidence' that he took part in Tom Monfils' beating, the appeals court ruled

By Warren Bluhm
July 11, 2001

DE PERE - Francine Gaie had not been able to find her brother, Mike Piaskowski, by mid-afternoon Tuesday when camera crews arrived at her workplace to ask about the news that his release from prison had been upheld by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Piaskowski, one of six men convicted six years ago in the 1992 murder of paper mill worker Tom Monfils, was in the Rhinelander area with his daughter, who had apparently turned off her cell phone. When a reporter asked Gaie, "How are you going to tell him?" she giggled involuntarily. 

"It's going to be real emotional," she said with a wide grin. "I think he's going to cry and well up again, and I'm just going to say 'We Won!'" 

When the family finally caught up with Piaskowski around 7 p.m., he and his daughter were driving back to her home after helping a friend with some home construction work. 

"He was absolutely elated when he found out," said Terry Enright, a friend of the family. "He had to pull over so he could compose himself." 

The three-judge panel handed Piaskowski a complete victory, affirming U.S. District Judge Myron Gordon's decision that not enough evidence was presented at trial to justify the guilty verdict and slapping down any suggestion that he could be retried without violating his right against double jeopardy. 

"The record is devoid of any direct evidence that Piaskowski participated in the beating of Monfils, and the available circumstantial evidence at most casts suspicion on him," said the opinion written by Appeals Judge Terence Evans. "This is a far cry from guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, we affirm the district court's decision ..." 

All six men were sent before the jury in a single trial, and the appeals panel agreed with Gordon that the state's case against Piaskowski was the weakest of the six, depending largely on circumstantial evidence and inferences that Piaskowski may have been present when Monfils was severely beaten and then tossed, unconscious, into a pulp vat at the James River Corp. mill. 

"Although a jury may infer facts from other facts that are established by inference, each link in the chain of inferences must be sufficiently strong to avoid a lapse into speculation," Evans wrote. "In this case, the chain of inferences the State attempts to forge fails in multiple places. Piaskowski may have been involved in the attack on Monfils and his murder, but under our system of law, that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The scant evidence here falls short of meeting that burden." 

Since Gordon issued his ruling Jan. 9, Gaie said, the family has been on a roller coaster, beginning with the state's successful move to increase Piaskowski's bail to $300,000 and the decision to take the case to the federal appeals court. He was released April 3 after the family scraped the money together. 

"This last leg has been hard every time," she said. "The state appealing his release, coming up with the money; he's been in limbo since his release. It's been wonderful getting accustomed to a normal life again, but now, to have it actually maybe over entirely - unbelievable." 

Gaie said she was somewhat confident her brother's release would be upheld after she sat through the oral arguments in Chicago. "I felt that (the state's arguments) were very weak, ill-prepared," she said. "And if they appeal any more it'd be more like turning the knife - I don't understand it." 

Mitch Henck, spokesman for Attorney General James Doyle, said the state has the option of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court or asking for a hearing before all 11 judges in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. It's too soon to say if such action would be taken, he added. 

Gaie said she feels for the Monfils family, which had no comment Tuesday. 

"Tom's death was very tragic and my heart goes out to them, it always had," Gaie said. "But the state only compounded Tom's death by going after an innocent man. They didn't solve it by going after my brother." 

Piaskowski's nephew, Tracy Pierner, said his mother's brother missed six years of his life. 

"Two of my daughters were born while he was in prison, and our oldest daughter was just a baby when he went away," he said. "A lot of years." 

Pierner said Mike Piaskowski saw one family member's cottage this past weekend for the first time since he went to prison. 

"Those kinds of things will happen more frequently over the next few months as he does get to know his family again and his friends, and get his life back together," he said. "He's got a lot of things to put back together - a job, a home, a life."

Click HERE to read the full opinion of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Recent Cases
Truth in Justice