Reincarnation issue not admissible in theft case


A state appeals court agrees that a Pleasant Prairie woman should have a new trial because a prosecutor asked whether the woman believed her ex-husband’s family burned her at the stake in a past life.

Kami L. Jennings, 39, denied the accusation -- a bit of gossip gleaned from her ex-husband’s new wife -- when a Kenosha prosecutor asked about it during an August 2010 trial, according to court records.

Jennings, who divorced Bradley Troha in 2003, was charged in 2009 for allegedly encouraging their 17-year-old daughter to steal from Troha’s new wife, Cynthia Troha. Cynthia Troha later “gossiped to the prosecutor” that Jennings “believed her ex-husband’s family had persecuted her in previous lives and burned her at the stake,” according to court records.

“The prosecution bit on the gossip, but never disclosed it to the court or defense before raising it three times during the trial,” the decision says.

Jurors found Jennings guilty. She got two years probation and was ordered to pay $2,500 restitution.

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder later overturned the jury’s verdicts convicting Jennings of theft, contributing to the delinquency of a minor and receiving stolen property, all misdemeanors. Schroeder concluded the testimony was “like a little storehouse of dynamite” that could have influenced jurors. And, while the evidence was relevant to motive, Schroeder said that prosecutor Angelina Gabriele erred in not disclosing it to the court before trial.

In a decision released Wednesday, the state Court of Appeals agreed that Jennings was due a new trial. However, the court did not accept Schroeder’s reasoning. The court also rejected the idea, argued by the defense, that the questioning about reincarnation attacked Jennings’ religious beliefs to undermine her credibility.

Instead, the appeals court concluded that the reincarnation issue was inadmissible character evidence.

Whatever the reason, the decision pleased Robert R. Henak, a criminal appeals attorney in Milwaukee, who represented Jennings.

“Under Judge Schroeder’s decision, it was an issue of notice. And if the prosecutor had provided notice, the evidence would have been allowed,” Henak said. “Under the Court of Appeals decision, it is not admissible no matter how much notice you give.”

“Obviously, I disagree with the decision and the reasoning of the court of appeals. And at this point we are reviewing our options,” prosecutor Angelina Gabriele said.

The state attorney general could ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to hear the case, but the court could decline. The attorney general’s office was aware of the case, but was not available for comment.

Henak did not think the case would see another appeal.

“It’s the kind of thing that in 25 years of practice I have never seen the issue come up before,” Henak said. “...The attorney general’s office would have to decide whether it’s worth their time and resources. I suspect they will decide this is something they will not be willing to pursue.”

Still, Henak said the case was worth an initial appeal.

“Wrongly having the label of being a criminal is worth correcting,” Henak said.

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