By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — A 54-year-old Wausau man accused of savagely beating a woman to death nearly two decades ago is once again appealing his conviction, with two new attorneys on board.
James Emerson 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 riverfront on the city’s east side.
Emerson’s new attorneys, David Turek and Daniel Kennedy, have not responded to requests for comment on the case. Turek and Kennedy are with the Milwaukee law firm Gass Weber Mulllins, LLC, and are handling the case pro bono, according to court filings.
Prosecutors say Emerson and Mertes were among a group of people who left a west side tavern around closing time in December 1999. Hours later, joggers discovered Mertes’ body in a pool of blood near an abandoned building. A bloody rock lay nearby, her clothes were torn and her pants were around her legs, according to court documents.
Marathon County Circuit Judge Gregory Grau later called the slaying the worst crime he’d ever seen in the county. Grau has since retired.
Mertes’ murder remained a mystery for years, but in May 2007 new tests matched Emerson’s DNA with hair found on Mertes’ body. Two jailhouse witnesses also came forward to tell police Emerson confessed to them. Prosecutors then charged Emerson with first-degree intentional homicide. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 2009.
Emerson’s most recent appeal comes on the heels of a February Marathon County Circuit Court denial of a post-conviction motion that accused trial attorney Peter J. Thompson of making “fundamental, obvious and substantial” errors in the case. Attorney Michael Yellin, who represented Emerson from June 2017 until May 2018, argued 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 pointed 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. But Circuit Judge Greg Strasser ruled against Emerson and denied his request for relief.
In an earlier appeal Emerson, who is black, argued that a jury selected from Iowa County to counter pre-trial publicity in the Wausau area was prejudiced against him because that county has few black people. But the appeals court in 2012 said Emerson and his attorney never objected to using Iowa County jurors and pointed out that Grau had found the percentage of blacks in Iowa County was similar to Marathon County.
Emerson also claimed that his attorney, Thompson, falsely accused him of making threats during a jail meeting, didn’t spend enough time talking with him in jail and should have called an expert witness to testify that the DNA on Mertes could have come from someone else.
The appeals court in its July 2012 decision noted that Grau found Emerson started the jail confrontation with his lawyer in hopes of delaying the trial and failed to show why he needed more time to discuss his case. The court said Emerson also failed to show how Thompson’s decision not to call the DNA expert was deficient, noting Thompson still tried to show the DNA tests weren’t conclusive.
Emerson went on to argue Grau shouldn’t have allowed evidence showing Emerson approached three women outside bars seeking sex. According to the appeals court opinion, he approached a woman outside a bar in 1996 with a shovel handle asking for oral sex and in 2000 tried to coax two women outside a nightclub to a hotel for sex. Emerson maintained the incidents were different than a homicide case, but the appeals court found the judge admitted the evidence because it related to why Emerson would have approached Mertes.
A new notice of appeal was filed in May but the specific argument being presented in the case is not yet apparent. The Court of Appeals in June granted Yellin’s request to withdraw from the case after Turek and Kennedy came on board. A July 31 deadline has been set for case files to be transmitted to Emerson’s new attorneys.
Future court dates have not yet been set.