WAUSAU — A 54-year-old Wausau man accused of savagely beating a woman to death nearly two decades ago is asking for a judge to allow an evidentiary hearing to review claims that he did not receive a fair trial.
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, argue that the Circuit Court made two critical errors in denying earlier requests for such a hearing. The attorneys are with the Milwaukee law firm Gass Weber Mulllins, LLC, and are handling the case pro bono, according to court filings.
Read the full brief here.
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, who has since retired, later called the slaying the worst crime he’d ever seen in the county.
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 a hearing on the issue.
Emerson’s new attorneys, in a brief filed in October, claim Emerson was denied his right to confront witnesses against him and his right to effective counsel, since his trial attorney did not object to admission of the detective’s statement at trial. As a result of that statement, Emerson’s attorneys now conclude, Emerson was prejudiced and did not receive a fair trial.
In addition, the defense brief claims Emerson’s trial attorney could have and should have called witnesses to challenge victim impact testimony that addressed the need for public protection from Emerson and addressed his violence and behavior toward women.
Prosecutors are expected to file a response to Emerson’s attorneys’ brief by later this week.