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by Edmond Geary

Murder conviction reversed, based on evidence of a hand-written note

Mark Jensen, who was convicted in Wisconsin of first degree murder for poisoning his wife, has won the appeal of his conviction.  The U.S. Seventh Circuit of Appeals based its decision on evidence of a note written by his deceased wife.  The hand-written note from Julie Jensen read, “if anything happens to me, he would be my first suspect.”  It was written two weeks before her death and introduced at trial to convict him.

The Court by a 2-1 vote affirmed U.S. District Court Judge William Griesbach’s reversal of the conviction because this evidence should not have been allowed into evidence. The evidence can be understood as hearsay evidence, that is, the declaration by an out-of-court declarant (his wife, Julie) offered for the purpose of proving the matter asserted (i.e., “Mark killed me.”).  But the evidence was not reversed upon a mere rule of evidence. The reversal was predicated upon the constitutional right of confrontation. The Sixth Amendment guarantees one accused of a crime the right to be confronted by his accusers.  Mark Jensen was not given the right to face and to cross-examine the author of the accusatory note.  The right of confrontation has enjoyed more attention from courts since the 2004 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Washington.

Julie Jensen’s body was found in 1998 in Mount Pleasant , Wisconsin, at home, where she lived with her husband. The cause of death was determined to be poisoning by antifreeze, and the death was originally thought to be suicide.  Suicide by poisoning was the defendant’s claim at trial. He was convicted by Walworth County state prosecutors in 2008, and that conviction was reversed by the U.S. District Court Judge William Griesbach, which reversal was then appealed by the State of Wisconsin to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The evidence of the note was not only inadmissible but so prejudicial as to have tainted the conviction. The State of Wisconsin can try Jensen again if it believes it has sufficient other evidence to convict Jensen without the note.