Gazette Xtra

Appeals court calls for Walworth County new trial in juvenile arson case

Frank Schultz
February 13, 2015

MADISON—A prosecutor and defense attorney erred, and a detective gave “false testimony,” combining to send a Walworth County teen to juvenile prison in a 2013 case, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.

The court on Wednesday issued its opinion in the case of a juvenile identified as Charles C.S. Jr.

The court wrote that Walworth County sheriff's Detective Jeffrey Recknagel “gave demonstrably false testimony” and that the assistant district attorney compounded the problem by introducing inadmissible testimony and arguing evidence that was not true.

Sheriff Kurt Picknell became aware of the ruling late Thursday. He said Friday he had read the decision, the department was reviewing it internally and that he assigned Capt. Dana Nigbor of the investigations division to discuss the matter with District Attorney Dan Necci.

“Detective Recknagel has my full support as we're reviewing the matter,” Picknell said.

Picknell said it would not be appropriate to comment further, given that the matter is returning to the trial court.

The appeals court ordered a new trial and suggested one of the witnesses in the case could be a suspect.

It was not clear when the new trial would take place. That's up to the Walworth County District Attorney's Office, said Aneeq Ahmad, the attorney who represented Charles in the appeal.

Necci could not be reached for comment.

The prosecutor and defense attorney who handled the case are not identified in the court decision, but Ahmad identified Haley Rea as the prosecutor and Paul Volbrecht as the defense attorney.

Ahmad said his client, 14, was incarcerated in jail and then in a juvenile prison—Lincoln Hills School for Boys in northern Wisconsin—for a year before being released on supervision with an ankle bracelet.

All this “when the truth of the matter was that the trial itself was not fair, when there was a lack of evidence, and when my client is innocent,” Ahmad said.

The Department of Corrections released Charles completely after the appeals court ruling this week, Ahmad said.

The appeals court did not say Charles is innocent, but in ordering a new trial, the court suggested he might be.

Bethel United Methodist Church in the town of Sugar Creek was burglarized and torched on June 19, 2013, according to the appeals court opinion.

Police quickly focused on three juveniles: Drake C., 16, Robert M, 15; and Charles, 14, the court wrote.

Robert admitted being at the church and said Charles was with him. Charles denied being there and said Robert and Drake went to the church.

Drake said he stayed home while Robert and Charles went there.

Charles' theory was that Drake and Robert, being better friends, conspired to protect Drake by falsely accusing Charles, the appeals court wrote.

The court noted that Drake was going to turn 17 in September, possibly subjecting him to prosecution in adult court.

The prosecution had no direct evidence that Charles was at the church, but it filed a delinquency petition that charged Charles with party to arson, burglary and criminal damage to religious property, the court wrote.

“The delinquency trial boiled down to a credibility contest between the teens,” the court wrote.

At trial, the assistant district attorney asked Recknagel whether he believed Drake, and Recknagel responded: “Absolutely. And I haven't had just one interview with Drake. I had more than one interview, and I believe that every time he was being honest with me.”

Actually, there was proof that Drake and Robert had lied repeatedly to Recknagel, and both prosecutor and defense attorney should have known that, the appeals court wrote.

During the investigation the day of the fire, Robert lied when he identified himself to Recknagel as “John,” according to Recknagel's report, quoted in the court's opinion.

Drake and Robert, when questioned repeatedly whether “John” was actually Robert, each time denied it, the court wrote.

Drake's father later identified “John” as Robert.

Robert later told Recknagel that he is a pyromaniac, “has lit stuff on fire approximately 20-30 times” and that he had returned to the church later in the day to see what damage he caused, the court wrote.

The defense attorney should have cross-examined witnesses, challenging them with their “acts of dishonesty,” the court wrote.

Further, the defense attorney did not object to the prosecutor's questions about the witnesses' credibility. The law says a witness may not testify that another witness is honest in making an accusation, the court wrote.

The prosecutor should never have asked Recknagel whether he thought Drake was being honest, the court wrote, adding: “The state added to these errors by referring in closing argument to the fact that Charles 'is the only one who has been impeached today,'” despite knowing that this should not have been so.

“The state has an obligation to the justice system. We are troubled that the state took advantage of defense counsel's deficient performance by introducing clearly inadmissible evidence, and, most egregiously, arguing evidence that was not true,” the court wrote.

The appeals court concluded that “a reasonable probability exists that there would be a different result in this case had defense counsel not performed deficiently.”

Ahmad said he hopes prosecutors and law enforcement will see their top priority as doing justice, and not to getting a conviction, because it's not always the same thing.


Truth in Justice