March 30, 2015

Wisconsin agrees to $1.1 million payment in gay marriage case

Couples celebrate after a decision striking down the gay marriage ban was upheld. (Photo: WRN)

Couples celebrate after a decision striking down the gay marriage ban was upheld. (Photo: WRN)

The state Department of Justice has agreed to pay attorneys for eight same sex couples who challenged Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban nearly $1.1 million.

The agreement announced Friday is intended to cover the legal fees and other costs of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin, which challenged the state’s 2006 constitutional ban on gay marriage in federal court. The amendment was struck down last year, and the decision was allowed to stand last fall after the US Supreme Court passed on reviewing the case.

The agreement filed in the United State District Court for Western Wisconsin states that a check for the full amount is being requested from the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which will “be delivered to Plaintiffs’ counsel promptly upon receipt.”

Wisconsin Supreme Court will not hear arguments in John Doe case

WRN file photo

WRN file photo

The state Supreme Court will not hear oral arguments in a legal challenge to a John Doe investigation into potential illegal campaign coordination between conservative groups and Governor Scott Walker’s campaign.

In a 4-2 decision released late Friday afternoon, the high court said its decision was based on concerns about the impact of a secrecy order issued in the proceedings, which would prevent them from being able to publicly identify some plaintiffs in the case. Several of the unnamed groups targeted by the probe have argued that their activity was not illegal, and a judge sided with that position more than a year ago in halting the investigation.

The Supreme Court was set to hear arguments in the case in mid-April and has been trying to work out how the case should be handled for several weeks. Supreme Court proceedings are typically broadcast on WisconsinEye, and the court had been considering solutions that included having a tape delay of the proceedings or holding them in secret. In the opinion released Friday, the majority wrote “On the one hand, the court is strongly adverse to the idea of closing the courtroom to the public; our long tradition is to render public decisions based on public arguments, both oral and written. On the other hand, we must uphold the John Doe secrecy orders.”

Instead of oral arguments, justices will rely on briefs filed in the case.

Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson and Justice David Prosser dissented in the decision. Abrahamson wrote in her opinion that “Although it would not be free from difficulty, oral argument is legally and practically possible,” while Prosser took the position that they have the authority to close the courtroom to maintain the secrecy of the John Doe proceedings.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, who faces reelection on April 7, did not participate. She has previously cited a conflict of interest in the case.

Wisconsin DOJ completes review of Tony Robinson shooting


Tony Robinson

A report on the fatal shooting of a biracial man by a Madison police officer is now in the hands of the Dane County District Attorney. The state

Department of Justice turned over its findings Friday following a nearly three week long investigation into the shooting death of 19-year-old Tony Robinson.

Robinson was shot by white Madison Police Officer Matt Kenny on March 6, after Kenny responded to reports that Robinson was running in and out of traffic and had assaulted someone. Madison Police have said Robinson attacked Kenny before he was shot. The death sparked more than a week of peaceful protests around Madison, including multiple walk-outs by high school students.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne has not set a timetable for making any decision on whether Kenny will face any charges. Until then, the state’s report will not be made public.

A spokeswoman for the DOJ noted that DA Ozanne could request an additional investigation, which would result in additional reports from DCI, while also stressing that their reports “are only a part of the large amount of information which the DA will consider before issuing his findings.”

Arrest made in 1990 Berit Beck murder

Brantner (FdL Co. Sheriff)

Brantner (FdL Co. Sheriff)

An arrest has been made in a 25-year-old Wisconsin homicide. Fond du Lac County Sheriff Mick Fink said Friday that 61-year-old Dennis Brantner of Kenosha was arrested without incident on an arrest warrant for first-degree murder after making an appearance for an unrelated charge at the Kenosha County courthouse. Brantner was transported to the Fond du Lac County jail.

Brantner was identified last year as a primary suspect in the murder of 18-year-old Berit Beck. The Sturtevant teen was last seen leaving the Forest Mall in Fond du Lac in July 1990. Her van was found in a store parking lot two days after she was reported missing, with 462 extra miles on the odometer. Her body was found six weeks later in Fond du Lac County.

Fink expressed confidence last year that Brantner was a prime suspect in the case. Fink said “when I have physical evidence inside of a vehicle that a young lady was in prior to her abduction and maybe at the time of her death, I would call that a suspect…I would call that a prime suspect.”

The evidence had been recovered from Beck’s van and submitted to the state Crime Lab in 1990. It was ruled inconclusive at the time, but when investigators asked the Crime Lab to retest it last year, a fingerprint match with Brantner was made. An arrest has been made in a 1990 Wisconsin homicide. Berit Beck was an 18-year-old Sturtevant woman. She was found slain in a Waupun ditch, and evidence recovered from her van was at the time inconclusive.

Beck’s family issued this statement: “We are encouraged and relieved for this day to have arrived for Berit and our family. We request that our privacy be respected as this process unfolds.” The Sheriff’s Department and Fond du Lac County District Attorney have scheduled a press conference for Monday morning.

Former Dane County deputy changes plea in double homicide

Andy Steele

Andy Steele

A former Dane County sheriff’s deputy has changed his plea to guilty, but not legally responsible in the murders of his wife and sister-in-law.

40-year-old Andrew Steele had previously entered a plea of not guilty be reason of insanity in the case. He’s accused of killing his wife, 39-year-old Ashlee Steele, and her 38-year-old sister, Kacee Tollefsbol of Lake Elmo, Minnesota last August. The change in plea now means a trial that’s scheduled to start on April 13 with focus on Steele’s mental state at the time of the murders.

Steele had resigned from the sheriff’s department prior to the shootings, after being diagnosed with ALS. His attorneys are expected to argue at trial that the disease and medication he was taking for treatment affected his cognitive functions and impulse control.

Madison Defense Attorney Steve Eisenberg, who is not connected with the case, says this type of plea could allow Steele to be committed instead of sent to prison. That would allow him to eventually petition for release, if he can prove he’s no longer a danger to others.

Officers responded to Steele’s Fitchburg home on the afternoon of August 22, after a 911 call reporting someone with a gunshot wound in the basement. Initial officers on the scene found Tollefsbol inside the basement door covered with blood. She was later transported to a Madison hospital with a gunshot wound to the back, where she was pronounced dead.

The Dane County Sheriff’s tactical team was called in to enter the residence, where police found Andrew Steele inside a laundry room with a lit portable grill next to him. Ashlee Steele’s body was found on a bed, with a gunshot wound to the head and a black zip tie around her neck.

WIBA contributed to this report.