By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — The man convicted in one of Wausau’s most brutal murders is asking a judge to order a new trial based on errors his defense attorney allegedly made while handling the case.
James Emerson, 53, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of release for killing 37-year-old Rhonda Mertes, whose battered body was discovered by joggers in December 1999 along the east riverfront.
A bloody rock lay nearby, her clothes were torn and her pants were around her legs, according to court documents.
The crime remained a mystery for years, but in May 2007 new tests found Emerson’s DNA on Mertes’ body. Two jailhouse witnesses also came forward to tell police Emerson confessed to them.
In his appeal, Emerson accuses his trial attorney, Peter J. Thompson, of making “fundamental, obvious and substantial” errors in the case, according to court documents.
Emerson’s new attorney, Michael Yellin, outlined two arguments for a new trial in a brief submitted to the court on Sept. 26. In the first, Yellin argues that Thompson failed to object at trial to a violation of Emerson’s rights under the so-called “Confrontation Clause” by allowing testimonial statements that implicated Emerson. The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”
Specifically, Yellin points to testimony taken from a police interview in which a detective told Emerson that an “unidentified person” told police that Emerson’s former girlfriend told investigators that Emerson confessed to the murder.
That, Yellin claims, is “double hearsay” that bolstered the credibility of two jailhouse witnesses who testified in the case.
In his second argument, Yellin says Thompson failed to conduct a presentencing investigation and did not speak to witnesses who were willing to speak on Emerson’s behalf before Circuit Judge Greg Grau sentenced him to life without the possibility of release. Grau has since retired.
If Yellin can establish “plain error,” according to court documents, the burden then shifts to the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury would have found Emerson guilty “absent the error.”
A two-day evidentiary hearing in the case is set to begin April 26. Circuit Judge Greg Strasser will preside over the arguments.