Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Agencies join push for early access
Teacher's defense wants to see police reports immediately

Posted: Dec. 1, 2006
Weighing in on the case of a theology teacher charged with sexually assaulting a student 16 years ago, the Wisconsin Innocence Project and state public defender's office are calling for the end of the long-standing practice of withholding police reports from defendants in the early stages of prosecution.

The agencies are joining attorneys for Ronald A. Schaefer in trying to convince the state Court of Appeals that his case illustrates the need to give defendants access to police reports far earlier than current practice.

"The ability of defense counsel to access investigative information in a timely manner has been identified as a major cause of error in criminal cases," the agencies said in a filing in Schaefer's case. "Exoneration cases show that a suppression of evidence was a major factor in a significant number of wrongful convictions."

Schaefer's case wound up before the state Court of Appeals after his attorneys took the unusual step of subpoenaing police reports concerning the allegations shortly after the charges were filed this year.

A court commissioner and a circuit court judge each quashed the subpoena, at prosecutors' request. But when Schaefer's attorneys turned to the appellate court, the panel agreed to consider the case, largely because there was no precedent in Wisconsin for judges to follow under such circumstances.

Because of that, the appellate court's eventual ruling on the issue not only will dictate whether Schaefer and his attorneys will get their hands on the reports as quickly as they want but when defendants in criminal cases statewide in the future can get access to police reports.

"Exoneration cases show that a suppression of evidence was a major factor in a significant number of wrongful convictions."

- Wisconsin Innocence Project,
state public defenders office, in a joint filing to the state Court of Appeals

Ronald Schaefer
Ronald Schaefer

"The more we know about wrongful convictions, the less it makes sense to deprive a defendant of access to relevant evidence at the earliest possible opportunity," the agencies' filing says.

Schaefer, 45, of Skokie, Ill., was charged in May with two counts of second-degree sexual assault of a child after a now 30-year-old woman contacted Brookfield police and claimed she had a romantic relationship with Schaefer that included sex when he taught and coached at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, N87-W16171 Kenwood Blvd., Menomonee Falls.

The woman told police that while she was in the seventh grade, Schaefer was her basketball coach at the school, and he "started paying more attention to her and complimented her on her basketball skills," according to the complaint.

When she advanced to the eighth grade, Schaefer also became one of her teachers and as time passed, he left her notes and poems, according to the complaint.

During a visit to Schaefer's parents' home in Brookfield in 1990, the two went swimming together, then had sex, the complaint says. During that same period, they had sex while she was baby-sitting his two children, the complaint alleges.
Arrested at Chicago school

On the day Schaefer was charged, he was arrested at Luther North High School in Chicago, where he coaches the girls varsity basketball team in addition to acting as director of admissions and teaching theology courses.

Kathleen Stilling, one of Schaefer's attorneys, subpoenaed the reports from the Brookfield Police Department a few days before he was scheduled to have his preliminary hearing on the charges, contending that Schaefer was at a particular disadvantage because the criminal complaint provided just five paragraphs about allegations concerning events 16 years ago.

"He cannot be expected to independently remember important details which may call into question the plausibility of the allegation," Stilling wrote at one point in a filing with the appellate court.

Waukesha County Deputy District Attorney Debra Blasius, who issued the charges, and state Assistant Attorney General Rebecca Rapp St. John have contended that defendants do not have a right to investigative reports until after a preliminary hearing, when evidence sharing rules require prosecutors to supply reports to defendants.

If he is ordered to stand trial after the hearing, "the prosecution will have constitutional, statutory and ethical duties" to provide the reports, Rapp St. John said in her filing with the appellate court.

The filing by the Innocence Project and the public defender's office contends, among other things, that earlier access to police reports would deter "tunnel vision" that police investigators can develop as a result of an eagerness to build a case against a known suspect while "ignoring or suppressing evidence that points away from guilt."

"The preliminary hearing serves an important function in protecting the innocent from embarrassment, expense and trauma of standing trial for a crime he or she did not commit," the filing says.

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