Cody Vandenberg, imprisoned for 14 years, released as Brown County prosecutors ponder retrial
BY PAUL SRUBAS • PSRUBAS@GREENBAYPRESSGAZETTE.COM • SEPTEMBER 1, 2010
A Green Bay man was out from behind bars Tuesday for the first time in 15 years.
Cody Vandenberg, now 45, walked out not exactly a free man but still overwhelmed by being out of prison and with his family 15 years after being convicted of stabbing a man repeatedly and stealing his credit cards.
"It's great," Vandenberg said, smiling widely but clearly reserved with both the news media and his family members, who gathered to meet him outside the doors of the Brown County Jail.
He was unable to say what he looked forward to doing, within the narrow confines of the judge's orders that freed him, other than to take something for a headache and have "something that isn't prison food."
Brown County Judge Don Zuidmulder on Tuesday issued a $35,000 signature bond for Vandenberg, who last week learned he would get a new trial after being convicted of the 1995 attempted murder of a 23-year-old man. Zuidmulder ordered that Vandenberg remain under house arrest in the custody of his son, Cody Jr., 26, who lives in Oneida.
Vandenberg can't leave the house even to go to church or to the doctor without getting Zuidmulder's permission, and he is under orders to have no contact with any of the witnesses in the 15-year-old case that put him behind bars.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals determined last week that new evidence should be heard in the case. Vandenberg is due back in court Sept. 28 as prosecutors decide whether to try the case again or ask the state Supreme Court to consider reversing the appellate ruling.
Vandenberg's release Tuesday didn't happen smoothly. Because Vandenberg technically remains charged, and because the Court of Appeals ruling for a new trial doesn't go into effect for 30 days, Zuidmulder, defense lawyers and the prosecution were unsure who had jurisdiction over him. Zuidmulder issued the release order, then reconvened the case to announce that the Department of Corrections apparently had the ultimate authority over whether Vandenberg could be released, then convened a third time to announce that his initial order would stand.
Vandenberg's family at first was unsure whether he would be released from a holding cell downtown or from the main jail on Curry Lane in Green Bay. A family member rushed out to buy clothing for him under the assumption that he would not be allowed to leave with the jail garb he had been wearing in court.
As it turned out, Vandenberg was released in the prison jumpsuit — not the jail jumpsuit he had worn in court — and changed into civilian clothing immediately after his release from the main jail.
Confusion over the next step in the Vandenberg case is a newest chapter in the long-running legal story that included a 1996 jury conviction of armed robbery and attempted first-degree intentional homicide for repeatedly stabbing Blake Renard in his trailer home and stealing his credit cards. Vandenberg faced two consecutive 40-year sentences in prison.
Vandenberg maintained his innocence in the case. A co-defendant, Larry Pearson, confessed to driving the get-away car and at first said Vandenberg was involved, but later said he wasn't. Pearson received immunity from prosecution for the stabbing in exchange for his testimony against Vandenberg, and eventually was convicted only of involvement in the robbery, for which he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. In 1997, Pearson allegedly told a social worker that he alone had committed the stabbing.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, a group of law students who work to overturn wrongful convictions, took up Vandenberg's case in 1999. In the past decade, 22 students have worked on the case, according to John Pray, the lead lawyer in the defense.
"I did nothing, so this is right," Vandenberg said of his release. He admitted he struggled to remain hopeful that he eventually would be freed.
"I'm sure I gave up hope one or two times, but it's hard to think of them now," he said.
Truth in Justice Note: The foregoing news report is not informative regarding the issues. To better understand, click HERE to read the Court of Appeals Decision (pdf format).