A federal judge has overturned Mark Jensen’s murder conviction and ordered he be released from prison within 90 days.
Jensen, 54, was convicted in 2008 of poisoning his wife, Julie Jensen, in their Pleasant Prairie home 10 years earlier.
Julie Jensen had made statements and written letters before her death pointing the finger at her husband, were anything to happen to her. Prosecutors used those statements at trial, even though Jensen had no way to confront Julie Jensen about what she said or wrote.
The fundamental question at trial was whether Jensen had poisoned his wife with ethylene glycol — commonly known as antifreeze — or whether she committed suicide and framed her husband. In trying to prove that, the state introduced Julie Jensen’s “voice from the grave,” through a letter and reports to police that she feared her husband was plotting to kill her.
Jensen was sentenced to life in prison, and began appealing his conviction, first at the state level. The Court of Appeals allowed the conviction to stand, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied his request for review.
He succeeded in federal court, however, where William Griesbach chief U.S. judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, agreed this week that the state’s use of Julie Jensen’s statements violated his Constitutional right to confront witnesses.
In the opinion issued Wednesday, the judge says Julie’s letter “served as an unrebuttable and emotionally compelling accusation of guilt,” and gave jurors a way to infer motive, premeditation and exonerate Julie Jensen. The judge also refuted the state’s claim that any error from the introduction of the letter was harmless.
“To say that the letter was not a key piece of evidence and to downplay its effect on trial is to create a sterilized, post-hoc rationalization for upholding the result. The erroneous admission of the evidence was prejudicial to Jensen, and therefore, it cannot be deemed harmless,” the judge wrote.
Attorney Craig Albee represented Jensen in the federal case.
“It was a brilliant decision by the judge,” he said. “I would expect it to be upheld if the state does appeal. It's a great first step to Mark finally getting a fair trial. We’re very pleased.”
The state could decide to appeal this decision to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. It could also decide to retry the case, this time without Julie Jensen’s statements.
Kenosha County District Attorney Bob Zapf and former District Attorney Robert Jambois, the special prosecutor who handled the 2008 murder trial, were not reachable for comment Thursday.
Jensen’s family isn’t quite sure what to do with the news.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jensen’s father, Dan Jensen, said Thursday. “We’ve been fighting this for 15 years and got kind of comfortable with it. It’s such an old story, such a miserable one, now that we’ve won, we don’t really know how to react.”
Depending on what prosecutors decide to do, Mark Jensen could be released from prison. Dan Jensen that they knew this was a long shot, and that most appeals don’t succeed.
“It’s been a 15-year pipe here,” Dan Jensen said. “She died Dec. 3, 1998, and here we are in the middle of December 2013. The children of my son have long grown up and become mature. ... The family was wrecked and we’ve been fighting this ever since.”
Mark Jensen has maintained his innocence — through the weeks-long trial in 2008, and after.
“It was just one false accusation after another,” Dan Jensen said.
The judge’s order requires Mark Jensen be released from prison within 90 days. That could be held up if the state decides to further appeal the decision, or to retry the case without the letters and statements from Julie Jensen that the federal judge says violated Mark Jensen’s right to confront witnesses.
Mark Jensen is in a Dodge County prison, where he is serving the life sentence without the chance of release to which he was sentenced in 2008.
Members of Julie Jensen’s family could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Dec. 3, 1998 — Julie Jensen dies.
March 20, 2002 — Mark Jensen arrested, charged with first-degree intentional homicide in death of his wife.
Oct. 8, 2003 — Judge rules that letter written by Julie Jensen can be used at trial.
Nov. 27, 2003 — Trial delayed.
June 7, 2004 — Judge reverses himself, rules Julie Jensen letter cannot be used at trial.
Sept. 21, 2004 — Attorney general appeals decision to not allow Julie Jensen letter as evidence.
Feb. 23, 2007 — Wisconsin Supreme Court rules Julie Jensen’s letter, statement can be used.
April 25, 2007 — Judge rules Julie Jensen’s letter can be used at trial.
July 30, 2007 — Jensen jailed after surprise witness says Mark Jensen talked about killing his wife.
Jan. 7, 2008 — Jensen trial begins in Elkhorn. During trial, medical examiner first testifies Julie Jensen was suffocated, then says she was poisoned but “finished off” by suffocation. Defense hammers toxicology and lab tests during the trial.
Feb. 21, 2008 — Jury finds Jensen guilty after 30 hours of deliberation.
Feb. 27, 2008 — Jensen sentenced to life in prison with no chance for release.
Dec. 29, 2010 — Court of Appeals upholds Jensen’s conviction.
June 16, 2011 — Wisconsin Supreme Court denies Jensen’s petition for review.
Aug. 24, 2011 — Jensen asks a federal judge review his case, saying his Constitutional right to confront witnesses was violated.
Dec. 18, 2013 — United States District Judge William Griesbach grants Jensen’s petition, overturning his conviction and ordering his release from prison within 90 days. During that time the state may decide to appeal or to retry the case, which could halt his release.
Source: Kenosha News archives