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Appeals Court upholds conviction in 1999 Wausau murder

in Sirens

By Shereen Siewert

A Wisconsin appeals court on Wednesday denied the latest appeal of a 55-year-old Wausau man convicted of savagely beating a woman to death more than two decades ago.

James Emerson is serving a life sentence without the possibility of release for killing 37-year-old Rhonda Mertes, whose  body was discovered by joggers in December 1999 along the riverfront on the city’s east side. In October 2018, defense attorneys David Turek and Daniel Kennedy filed the appeal, asking for a judge to review claims that Emerson did not receive a fair trial.

Emerson and Mertes were among a group of people who left a west side tavern just after 2 a.m. on Dec. 4 1999. Hours later, joggers discovered Mertes’ body in a pool of blood near an abandoned building. Mertes’ clothes were torn and her pants were around her legs, according to court documents. A bloody rock was discovered nearby; her face had been battered beyond recognition.

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 the case took a dramatic turn. Members of the state crime laboratory tested buccal swabs from over 50 people who may have had some connection or contact with Mertes, and the lab eliminated all but Emerson as potential contributors to the DNA samples from the nail clippings and underwear, according to court documents. Further, there was no other potential match to those samples from any profile in the state crime laboratory’s database. Emerson’s Y-STR DNA profile contained matches for all twelve markers examined from samples taken from the fingernail clippings and underwear.The FBI laboratory also determined that Emerson’s mitochondrial DNA was consistent with that in the pubic hair it tested.

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 came on the heels of a Marathon County Circuit Court denial of a post-conviction motion that accused his former 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 appealed that ruling. But the Third District Court of Appeals dismissed that argument in their ruling this week.

“Given the overwhelming evidence of Emerson’s guilt, there is no reasonable probability that the exclusion of a detective’s oblique reference during an interrogation regarding Emerson having told an unidentified person that he killed Mertes would have resulted in a different outcome at trial,” the Appeals Court opinion states.

The judges also rejected an argument that Emerson’s trial attorney should have called additional character witnesses at sentencing.

“In sum, we see no reasonable probability that presenting live testimony from character witnesses on Emerson’s behalf regarding his rehabilitative potential would have persuaded the circuit court to grant Emerson eligibility for supervised release,” the opinion states.

Read the full opinion here.

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