MADISON, Wis. (CN) — A lawsuit from a Wisconsin woman wrongfully convicted of arson was dealt a blow from a federal judge on Monday, who found that investigators' actions in her case did not amount to constitutional violations.
U.S. District Judge William Conley offered in his 21-page decision that even though the investigation into Brenda Jones carried out by police, including lead investigator Brent York and others, was faulty, he was bound to grant summary judgment to the defendants about a month ahead of a trial planned to commence on June 1.
"While the court finds the conduct of criminal investigator York, Adams County prosecutors, and Jones' original defense counsel deeply troubling, the court will grant [the motion for summary judgment] because it does not rise to a violation of the U.S. Constitution ..." the Barack Obama appointee wrote.
Conley left it to later state administrative or judicial proceedings for determinations as to whether state law remedies for wrongful prosecution and conviction will be available to Jones.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 17, 2013, the fire department in Quincy, Wisconsin, responded to an emergency call to find Jones' home fully burned to the ground.
York, then an investigator for the Adams County Sheriff's Department, called Jones — who was at her sister's home in nearby Reedsburg at the time — regarding the fire, and she told him the house had recently had water leakage and electrical issues. Jones' insurance company and investigators agreed at the time that the fire seemed accidental and unsuspicious.
About a month later, Alan Onopa, an acquaintance of Jones', came to the motel her insurance company was putting her up in, got drunk, grabbed her by the throat and threatened to turn her in for burning her house down if she did not give him a cut of the settlement money, according to Jones' complaint. Jones reported the altercation to the Marshfield Police Department the following day, making clear that Onopa was trying to extort her and may lie about her involvement in the fire in the future.
York investigated and at one point had Jones make a recorded call to Onopa, during which Onopa again threatened Jones with extortion. The investigator claimed at Jones' trial that he lost the recording of this call and never turned a copy of it over to the prosecutors or Jones' defense counsel.
York testified at trial as to the veracity of an alleged confession recorded by Onopa, which he claimed featured Jones admitting to committing arson for the insurance payout, while acknowledging that the recording was unclear due to background noises that made it hard to clearly hear the voices. This confession allegedly took place at a motel in Arlington Heights, Illinois, but Jones averred at trial that the voice in the recording was not hers and that she had never been there.
York also testified during Jones' trial in May 2016 that he did not recall ever hearing about any physical altercation between Onopa and Jones, despite three years earlier admitting to a Marshfield police officer that Jones had told him that Onopa put his hands around her throat and threatened extortion, according to background details in Monday's decision.
Jones was found guilty by a jury despite providing an alibi and a verifiable description of her whereabouts at the time of the fire and was sentenced to seven years probation, with nine months in jail as a condition of her probation.
However, after bringing a post-conviction motion pointing to a number of failures of the investigation, the prosecution and her defense counsel's representation, Jones' conviction was vacated and all the charges against her were dismissed in November 2018. She sued York, Adams County and others shortly thereafter in August 2019, claiming in part that York violated her due process rights by withholding exculpatory evidence from prosecutors, falsifying evidence and testifying falsely against her.
As for her claim that York failed to provide evidence clearing Jones — including the recording of her and Onopa that York claimed to have lost — Conley found in favor of the defendants because all the evidence Jones calls into question was either produced at some other point during trial or would have been available to her defense counsel via reasonable diligence, or her claims about such evidence are blocked by issue preclusion because the state criminal court made final rulings on it that she did not appeal at the time.
Conley also did not feel there was enough evidence to show that York falsified or fabricated evidence against Jones, but he did call York's reports "not perfect" and admitted that there are differences between his reports and some of the evidence in the record in his opinion filed on Monday.
The judge dismissed Jones' federal claims and chose not to take jurisdiction over her state law claims. But, "on the contrary, given the gravity of Jones' allegations against defendants, it is best for Wisconsin courts to decide what, if any, state remedy is available," he said.
Attorneys for both Jones and the defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday's decision.
York was placed on administrative leave by then-Adams County Sheriff Sam Wollin in October 2018 during the investigation of a separate 2001 incident, relating to the alleged cover-up of the beating of a prisoner in the Adams County Jail. A civil suit brought by the prisoner was later settled for $72,000.
On November 7, 2018, York defeated Wollin in an election and now serves as Adams County Sheriff himself.
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