Man serving life for 1982 Grafton slaying, Innocence Project want evidence tested using modern science
The Supreme Court of Wisconsin is poised to write the latest chapter in the legal saga of Jeffrey C. Denny, one of two brothers sentenced to life in prison for a gruesome 1982 murder in Grafton.
In response to a petition filed by the Wisconsin Attorney General’s Office, the highest court in the state has agreed to review a Court of Appeals ruling that Denny is entitled to have evidence in his case tested for DNA more than 34 years after the crime. Such tests did not exist when Grafton resident Christopher Mohr was bludgeoned and stabbed to death at his home on Jan. 26, 1982.
The decision by the District 2 Wisconsin Court of Appeals in March overturned a January 2015 ruling by Ozaukee County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Voiland that Denny was not entitled to have DNA tests performed on evidence.
At issue is whether the results of such tests would be relevant to his case, and legal observers say that because the legal issues deal with due process rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, as well as post-conviction rights, it’s possible the case could eventually be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This case is unique among the many I’ve seen in that it deals with the potential exculpatory value of the evidence found,” District Attorney Adam Gerol said. “The law involved here is somewhat in flux and touches on some very sensitive topics.”
The state’s case is being argued by the Office of the Solicitor General, which handles high-profile litigation that moves to higher courts.
Denny’s efforts to exonerate himself, which have been the subject of several unsuccessful appeals during his more than three decades behind bars, gained new life when his case was championed in 2014 by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a University of Wisconsin Law School group that works to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted.
The group, along with Denny’s public defender, asked Voiland in 2014 to order DNA testing of evidence that included pieces of a shattered marijuana bong, a bloody towel, a pair of gloves and hair found clutched in Mohr’s hand.
In addition to arguing that the absence of Denny’s DNA on evidence would suggest he is innocent, DNA from other individuals on items recovered from the murder scene could indicate someone else killed Mohr, according to a motion filed by the Innocence Project.
“Finding another individual’s DNA instead of Denny’s DNA on this evidence would make it less probable that Denny was the attacker and therefore indisputably relevant to the ultimate question before the jury: the identity of the real killer,” Denny’s lawyers argued in a brief submitted in September.
But Gerol argued that there is no context by which to draw a meaningful conclusion about DNA found on the evidence. For instance, DNA from someone other than Mohr or either Denny brother on the bong would not prove or even suggest someone else committed the murder, only that someone else used the bong.
“The state is willing to concede that it is quite possible that third-party DNA could be recovered from the evidence,” Gerol wrote in a court brief. “However, that, standing alone, would prove nothing, not with a bong that may very likely have been shared by the victim with numerous friends at numerous parties over an unknown time frame.”
Gerol noted that there were no other suspects in the case, so DNA found on the evidence could not be compared to a specific person.
“The murder grew out of a drug-related conflict between the victim and the Denny brothers,” Gerol wrote.
Voiland also disagreed with Denny’s lawyers, arguing in a written ruling that the absence of Denny’s DNA on evidence would not undermine his conviction.
“There is no requirement that Denny be the individual (or likely, one of the individuals) who stuck a knife or two into Mohr or smashed a bong over his head,” Voiland wrote. “A jury could have found Denny guilty as a party to the crime if he acted in concert with the others who inflicted the wounds while Denny stood lookout in the hallway, leaving none of his DNA at the scene.”
But the court of appeals, which not only ruled that Denny is entitled to have DNA evidence testing done but that it must be done at the state’s expense, found that Denny’s lawyers satisfied all the legal requirements for DNA testing.
“Denny showed that the items he sought to test were relevant to the investigation or prosecution that resulted in his conviction, that it is reasonably probable that he would not have been convicted if exculpatory DNA testing results had been available at the time of his conviction, and the testing he seeks was not available at the time of his conviction,” Appeals Court Chief Judge Lisa Neubauer wrote in the court’s March 23 opinion.
The appeals court also rejected Voiland’s argument that because the physical evidence in question did not result in Denny’s conviction, testing of it is not relevant.
“It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where evidence recovered during the investigation but not presented at trial is, due to advancement in scientific techniques, relevant,” Neubauer wrote. “Thus, the trial court applied an improper legal standard when concluding that the evidence Denny wants tested was not relevant because it did not result in conviction.”
Denny, who was 17 at the time of Mohr’s murder, and his brother Kent, who was 19, were convicted of first-degree murder after a nine-day trial in November 1982.
Jeffrey Denny is currently incarcerated at the Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison in Oregon just south of Madison.
Kent Denny has since died, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections Division of Community Corrections office in Saukville. According to news reports and his obituary, he was killed in a one-vehicle accident on Jan. 1, 2012, in northern Wisconsin.
According to the criminal complaint in the case, a friend of Mohr found him covered in blood on the floor of a bedroom just after 11 a.m. on Jan. 26, 1982.
An autopsy concluded that Mohr died of the stab wounds he suffered, but that he also suffered blunt force injuries to his head and face and a broken nose.
During a John Doe hearing held five months later, Trent Denny, the brother of Kent and Jeffrey, testified that shortly after he was released from jail on an unrelated matter, Kent and Jeffrey told him they killed Mohr.
According to Trent’s testimony, Kent gave him the following account of the murder:
Kent said he and Jeffrey went to Mohr’s home on Jan. 26, 1982, and Kent asked Mohr how he was. When Mohr replied he was fine, Kent stabbed him in the stomach and asked him how he was feeling then, according to the complaint.
Jeffrey then took the knife and began stabbing Mohr while Kentbroke a bong over Mohr’s head.
Trent also testified that in March 1982, two months after the murder, he, Kent and a female friend drove to a Grafton cemetery where Kent retrieved a paper bag that he said contained clothing he had to dispose of. Trent said they drove to the Town of Port Washington dump and threw the bag, which smelled like blood, into a dumpster, according to the complaint.
During the trial, numerous people testified that Kent and Jeffrey had told them they killed Mohr.
Among the physical evidence introduced at the trial was a pair of shoes allegedly owned by Jeffrey that the prosecutor attempted to link to a bloody footprint in a hallway at the scene.
“The sole physical evidence tying Denny to the crime was a single shoe sole imprint found on a phone book at the crime scene, which appeared to have a tread pattern similar to a pair of Denny’s shoes,” Denny’s lawyers wrote in their motion. But, the lawyers noted, a Wisconsin State Crime Lab analyst could not positively match the shoe print to Denny.
“The remaining evidence relied upon by the state consisted of witnesses who claimed they heard Denny confess to the murder,” Denny’s lawyers argued. “As explained in his original motion for DNA testing, the case against Denny was weak.”
Denny’s case has been assigned to the Supreme Court’s Justice on Wheels program, an initiative intended to improve public access to the court’s proceedings. Oral arguments have been scheduled for Oct. 26 at the Bayfield County Courthouse in Washburn.