MILWAUKEE (AP) — A Wisconsin man convicted of poisoning his wife 15 years ago was improperly tried because he couldn't confront his dead wife and her "letter from the grave" implicating the husband as the primary suspect, a federal judge has ruled.
Wednesday's decision in the long-running case centered on a key piece of evidence: a letter that Julie Jensen — suspicious that her husband, Mark, was trying to kill her — had slipped to her Pleasant Prairie neighbor.
Julie Jensen died in 1998, and her husband was charged four years later. The case was slowed by a legal debate over whether the letter and her statements to others could be used in court, or whether that evidence would violate Jensen's Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser.
A county judge ultimately decided the letter was admissible. A jury convicted Jensen in 2008 and he was sentenced to life in prison.
But a federal judge in Milwaukee concluded the case didn't meet the narrow specifications under which that constitutional right could be overlooked. The ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge William Griesbach means prosecutors now have 90 days to either appeal the decision or retry Mark Jensen. If they do neither, the 54-year-old will go free.
The state Department of Justice, which is handling the prosecution in conjunction with the Kenosha County district attorney's office, said it's still deciding whether to appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. A message left with Kenosha County prosecutors was not immediately returned.
Bob Jambois, who served as a special prosecutor on the case but isn't involved in any decision to appeal, said he thinks the state would still have a strong case even without the letter. He cited certain computer evidence and other details but said he couldn't elaborate while the case is ongoing.
Julie Jensen had told neighbors and a doctor that she believed her husband had never forgiven her for an affair she had years earlier and that she suspected he wanted to kill her. She told police he was researching poisons on his computer. And there was also the letter.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court found that a defendant forfeits his right to confrontation if he has done something to make the witness unavailable to testify. Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder decided Mark Jensen forfeited the right because the evidence showed he caused his wife's absence in court.
But months after Jensen's conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the circumstances under which a defendant forfeits the right to confrontation. The high court said a defendant must act with the express intent to keep a witness from testifying — a narrower interpretation than the Wisconsin Supreme Court's view.
Jensen argued on appeal in state and federal courts that the U.S. Supreme Court's approach trumps the state, making the letter and statements inadmissible.
The Wisconsin appeals court didn't analyze whether the letter and statements were admissible. It instead assumed they were wrongly admitted into evidence but ruled the mistake was harmless. Prosecutors had plenty of other evidence to back up the accusations in both the letter and statements, the court ruled.
For instance, Jensen sent emails to his mistress discussing how they could clean up their lives; Jensen's home computer showed a history of Internet searches about poisons; he was bitter about his wife's affair; and he told a co-worker about websites on undetectable poisons, the court said.
But Griesbach found that admitting the letter was indeed harmful to Jensen's defense.
"Julie's letter from the grave served as an unrebuttable and emotionally compelling accusation of guilt," he wrote. "... To say that the letter was not a key piece of evidence and to downplay its effect on trial is to create a sterilized, post-hoc rationalization for upholding the result."
Craig Albee, Mark Jensen's federal public defender, called Griesbach's decision "brilliant." He said he was confident the decision would be upheld if it's appealed.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.