For years, one Milwaukee man’s goal was to regain his freedom.
Danny Wilber, 43, has claimed he was wrongfully convicted in 2005 of shooting and killing a man at a Milwaukee party the year before. He spent the next 16 years mustering argument after argument for his release.
Now he’s reconnecting with loved ones and trying to find new purpose, after a federal appeal found his trial unfair and he was released.
“I fought this case for almost 18 years,” said Wilber, a citizen of the Oneida Nation. “I wasn’t going to stop. I wasn’t going to give up.”
Wilber wants to share his story to inspire others, knowing how much he relied on similar stories while incarcerated.
Wilber and his partner, Lacey Kinnart, I never would have thought it would take so long to get his freedom. The two became friends in 2013 when they met through one of Wilber’s relatives and Kinnart took an interest in his case. They bonded over their shared Native American roots – Kinnart is a citizen of Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians – and later became a couple.
Together they navigate Wilber’s transition to society from Kinnart’s home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They still have nearly $50,000 in legal fees to pay.
Wilber likes the little things he couldn’t do in prison – run to the grocery store, smoke cigars, go to the lake. He has also struggled with periods of depression and anxiety as he adjusts to life outside prison. He said it gave him a purpose to help friends who are still incarcerated with their cases.
“I’m still looking for the energy and the spirit that I had when I was fighting for my life because I feel like if I can tap into that spirit here, I can do a good job,” a- he declared. “I discover it on a daily basis.”
Conviction overturned for sequencing error
In 2005, Wilber was sentenced to life in prison after a jury found him guilty of homicide.
Even then, the case was not settled.
The victim, David Diaz, was shot in the back of the neck at an after-hours house party on the south side of Milwaukee in 2004.
Other revelers said Wilber was at the party that night, acting belligerent and fighting with people just before the shooting. But none of the witnesses told the jury that they saw Wilber shoot Diaz.
A witness told jurors he saw Wilber with a semi-automatic firearm immediately after the shooting, but a firearms examiner said Diaz was shot with a revolver.
Diaz, who lived in the house, was found lying face down in the kitchen. Bullet fragments found at the scene and the position of Diaz’s body suggested the shooter was standing behind Diaz. Testimonials have Wilber standing in the kitchen, in front of Diaz.
At least one other person was seen at the party with a firearm, also described as semi-automatic.
Wilber spent years arguing that the evidence did not support his conviction, only to face denial after denial. Instead, it was a judge’s decision to shackle him during the trial that won him his freedom.
It is common for defendants to be held in courtrooms for security reasons, but officials are careful not to let a jury see a defendant in chains, as this could imply guilt.
During the trial, Wilber wore a handcuff around his ankle and a stun belt on his arm.
The restraints were hidden from jurors until just before closing arguments, when Judge Mary Kuhnmuench ordered more restraints — partly in response to an altercation between Wilber and sheriff’s deputies outside the courtroom. of hearing.
“Other comments suggest that the trial judge obviously viewed the shackling of the defendant as punishment for what she perceived as disrespect,” U.S. District Judge William Griesbach wrote in a ruling. 2020 which was later confirmed.
Wilber was visibly tied to a wheelchair by at least one arm and shackled at the wrists, a sight his defense attorney at the time called “disturbing”.
Kuhnmuench, the trial judge, did not explain why the restraints could not be hidden.
At some point, before the jury returned to the courtroom, the prosecutor handling the case offered to find a blazer or sports jacket for Wilber, presumably to cover the restraints.
The judge replied that it was “not necessary”.
The jury convicted him the day after the closing arguments.
In October, the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit agree with Griesbachthe trial court judge, and his decision to overturn the verdict.
The appeals court found that due to weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, it was possible that the chaining tipped the scales in the prosecution’s favor and could have weighed in the jury’s decision to convict.
“To me, it’s like the judge making sure the jury would think he was a dangerous person,” said Rovner, the 7th Circuit judge, during the pleadings Last year.
Robert Henak, Wilber’s appeals attorney, credited his client with the filing the original habeas petition which ultimately led to his release and filing him within a strict deadline.
Between two lawyers, Wilber filed motions and motions with the courts on his own behalf and worked to find expert witnesses and other evidence to support his request for release. Kinnart also became invested in Wilber’s case and helped him retain Henak.
Exemption or not?
After the federal appeal ruling, state prosecutors still had the option to retry the homicide case.
In May, they decided not to try Wilber again and dismissed his case.
Assistant District Attorney Paul Tiffin said he doesn’t think he can prove the case at a new trial, partly because of his age but also because of problems with the evidence that even the judges of the Federal Court of Appeals recognized.
“The evidence certainly wasn’t overwhelming,” Tiffin said.
During the appeal, Wilber and his lawyers had also sought to overturn the conviction for lack of evidence, a high standard to be met. They argued that it was physically impossible for Wilber to have been the shooter and pointed to physical evidence suggesting the real shooter was in the next room.
Ultimately, the appeals court found there was enough evidence to support a guilty verdict.
Although he has not been legally declared innocent, Wilber considers himself exonerated. His appeal lawyer too.
“I think the evidence is so clear that he is in fact innocent that the dismissal by the prosecutor (in May) should be considered an exoneration,” Henak said.
Tiffin, the prosecutor, says he doesn’t consider that an exoneration.
Either way, this is one of the few cases in Wisconsin where a Native American person has had their conviction overturned.
For his part, Wilber is grateful to be free. Wilber and Kinnart are preparing to move to Minneapolis in the coming weeks for Kinnart’s job, where he hopes to find his calling. He wants to work in prison reform or with wrongfully convicted people. He and Kinnart recently traveled to New York for a summit on social justice causes.
“My future is bright. My future is what I want it to be,” he said.
Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America Corps reporter who focuses on news of value for underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Email him at [email protected]. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible donation to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.