Koshnick waves bloody shirt, but owns bloody shoes ruling

Printer-friendly version

There's an old political term you may have heard, called "waving the bloody shirt."

There are multiple theories about its origins, but it usually refers to a politician using images of past violence to stir up the electorate's prejudices and win support. The word demagogue is often used in connection with it.

Which brings us to Judge Randy Koschnick's bloody shirt campaign for the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Koschnick doesn't let a day go by in his campaign against Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson without talking about a case he heard in Jefferson County, a case in which a majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, including Abrahamson, twice overruled him about whether a bloody shirt could be included as evidence.

Somehow, Koschnick even got the case to be discussed as part of his bio when he was introduced at a debate before the Wisconsin Newspaper Assn.

Here's how a Gannett reporter started her story:

A bloody shirt served as the starkest symbol of the contrasting philosophies of Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Jefferson County Circuit Judge Randy Koschnick in their first campaign debate.

But Koschnick only tells part of the story, and omits a major piece.

The gruesome case involves Matthew Knapp, who killed a woman with a baseball bat in 1987 but was not charged until 1999 and finally convicted in 2006.

These things are a little complicated, but bear with me. I usually write at about third grade comprehension level (and it's not on purpose).

When police came to arrest Knapp on a probation violation after the 1987murder, they asked him what he's been wearing the night before (the night of the murder)and he gestured to a pile of clothes, including a sweatshirt (now known as the bloody shirt), which the police took with them. They had not given Knapp a Miranda warning. DNA tests on the sweatshirt later showed the blood was the victim's.

The same day, police searched the entire apartment of Knapp's brother, with whom Knapp was living, with his brother's permission. Among other evidence, they found two pairs of blood-spattered shoes in Knapp's bedroom.

Knapp's lawyer tried to have all of the evidence excluded, on the grounds of no Miranda warning, and that Knapp's brother could not authorize the search of Knapp's room, even though it was the brother's apartment.

Koschnick admitted the sweatshirt but excluded the shoes and other evidence from the second search.

He got it exactly backwards, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said. (The decision.)

It said the sweatshirt should not be included as evidence, but the shoes could be. The U.S. Supreme Court vacated that decision and sent it back for reconsideration, after which the Wisconsin court again overturned Koschnick, this time on state constitutional grounds. After that decision, Knapp went to trial-- and was convicted.

As Abrahamson noted in Thursday's debate, Knapp was convicted "with legally obtained evidence, of which there was a lot."

What she didn't say was that Koschnick had thrown out the prime pieces of legally obtained evidence, the bloody shoes.

How important were the shoes?

The prosecutor who handled the case said after the guilty verdict that the jury convicted him because, “The scientists showed the dead woman’s blood was on his shoes.”

So if Koschnick wants to keep talking about this case -- and he seems to be making it the key issue in his campaign so far -- more power to him.

But let's call it what it was: The Bloody Shoes Case.

And Koshnick was on the wrong side.

UPDATE:  An attorney who looked into the case tells me that Abrahamson dissented from the decision to allow the shoes to be admitted.  While relevant, it does not change the argument that Koschnick excluded evidence which the Supreme Court (even without Abrahamson) allowed to be admitted as evidence, and which was instrumental in convicting the murderer.