|Advocates for Penny Brummer - Wrongfully Convicted in 1994|
—John Pray, Co-founder of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Innocence Project
Advocates of Penny Brummer are working to correct a 21-year-old injustice in the wrongful conviction of Penny Brummer.
Penny Brummer was convicted of killing Sarah Gonstead in 1994 despite no weapon, no forensic evidence, no motive, and literally no evidence of any kind tying Brummer to the undetermined crime scene.
The police investigation was replete with anti-lesbian bigotry playing a big part in Penny's conviction, and is a case study of confirmation bias. Several jurors expressed disapproval of lesbian and gay relationships in jury questionnaires.
Police investigators questioned Penny's co-workers about her body language, 'how she carried herself at work;' her persona apparently appearing unladylike behavior in an atavistic conception of gender types.
A $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer of Sarah Gonstead murdered in 1994 for which Brummer was convicted and given a life sentence for first-degree intentional homicide.
Madison, Wisconsin media—WISC-TV (Madison), WKOW-TV (Madison)—and advocates for Brummer heavily covered the news of the $10,000 reward as a private investigator, Rikki Glen, continues an ongoing investigation
Rikki Glen, Penny's mother, Nancy Brummer, and John Pray of the Wisconsin Innocence Project held a press conference yesterday in front of the Dane County Courthouse.
"The evidence [in the Brummer case] was beyond, beyond thin," said Ms. Glen at the press conference.
The reward for the 21-year old conviction in Brummer v. Wisconsin comes as Dane County has made strides in combating LGBTQ bigotry, and after the win-convictions-for-reason-of-advancing-careers dynamic in the legal community in Wisconsin and Dane County resulted in incarcerations that shamed the criminal justice system.
"Today, we are a more enlightened community than 20 years ago, and Nancy Brummer, and advocates are optimistic that champions for truth will come forward and our community, police and prosecutors will stand up for truth and free Penny Brummer," said Glen.
Said John Pray of the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the press conference:
It's been over 20 years since Penny Brummer has been convicted of the murder of Sarah Gonstead. It's a very long time and it's been a very difficult 20 years for Penny, for the family, and for her friends and many supporters. In 1994 when Penny was convicted this country was at the beginning of a revolution in the criminal justice system. This revolution was brought about by the first uses of DNA which led to the formation of the Innocence movement. At that time, for the first time, we all became very aware of the indisputable fact that it is possible to convict people of serious crimes—murder, sex assaults—and be completely innocent. We've also learned that this happens a lot more than we are comfortable with and a lot more than we ever thought was possible. In the years since then, we've seen 100s of examples where DNA evidence has proved beyond any doubt the system has grievously erred and that the wrong person was in prison. A number of those people are from Wisconsin. Wisconsin is not immune from that. Some of those people served decades in prison before they were proved innocent. In many of those cases DNA led not only to the release of the innocent person but to the arrest and conviction of the actual murderer or the actual perpetrator who have, by the way, gone on to commit other serious crimes because they have been let free.
We learn from these exonerations what went wrong with the system. And for the most part it isn't because there are evil police and prosecutors who are trying to get it wrong. They're generally good people, they're trying to solve crimes and serve justice. But even when people are acting in good faith there are still many ways that things can go tragically wrong: Eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Witnesses' memories are prone to mistakes. Investigators can prematurely arrive at conclusions that are incorrect and then focus on information that supports those plots and conclusions and disregard other information that comes in that does not support those conclusions. That's a process called 'tunnel vision.' And it can and it does lead to conviction of the innocent. Penny's case features many of these same features.
[Note: Since covering the Brummer case, several jurists, advocates and other well-informed sources have told me on background coverage of this case here has on some occasions borders on ad hominem regarding the presiding judge of Brummer v. Wisconsin, Patrick Fiedler. They point to Fiedler's well-regarded status in the Wisconsin legal community, his CV (ballotpedia), attest to Fiedler as an honorable jurist and brilliant intellect, his swift exoneration of Forest Shomberg in the 2011 wrongful conviction case, and currently his work as an effective defense attorney working to defend the rights of the citizenry of Wisconsin. These assessments are often informed by those who have worked directly and closely with Fielder. This site is indexed in Lexis-Nexis and Bloomberg's Westlaw as a legal research document, and thorough commentary and analysis ought note the above facts.]
Below is the statement on Penny Brummer read by private investigator, Rikki Glen at the press conference held yesterday:
I'm Rikki Glen, a Wisconsin licensed private investigator retained by advocates challenging the wrongful conviction of Penny Brummer.
I am going to read a short statement about why we are here today, followed by statements from Penny's mother, Nancy and John Pray from the UW Innocence Project.
If you have questions we will be glad to try and answer them after we have finished.
Twenty years ago, Penny Brummer was convicted of killing Sarah Gonstead despite no weapon, no forensic evidence, no motive, and no evidence of any kind tying Brummer to the undetermined crime scene. It has long been asserted that anti-lesbian bias played a large part in Penny's conviction.
When I was asked to help with this case, earlier this year, I had a vague recollection of what transpired. As I was reading through the police reports I was shocked and bothered by some of the things that I read.
For instance, there was an alternate suspect. After Penny dropped off Sarah she saw her talking with some people. Penny remembered seeing an old gray van with distinctive bug eye windows. A few days later, Penny was looking for the van when she spotted it not far from the 3054 Club and Taco Bell. Penny gave the license number to her friend's mother, who turned it over to police. The license traced back to a person who had a long record of felonies against women. He admitted he frequented the area where Penny saw him talking to Sarah, and he said that he was the only one who ever drove his vehicle. His driver's license was revoked at the time, so it was a crime for him to drive, but police didn't seem to notice that. He was interviewed briefly, told them he wasn't at that location on March 14th, and that ended the interview.
Police clearly had 'tunnel vision' in building a case against Penny, another common feature in wrongful convictions.
Another example a witness came forward and reported seeing a suspicious man standing by the open passenger door of a parked pickup truck exactly where Sarah's body was later found. This suspicious man matched the description of the person Penny said she saw Sarah talking to near the Taco Bell at East Washington Avenue and North Oak Street in Madison. He also noticed what looked to him to be a pink duffle bag on the ground next to the truck. Sarah was wearing a pink jacket when she disappeared. The police told the witness 'This is all very interesting, but we already have a suspect, and this doesn't fit.'
Today, I announce that a $10,000 reward has been established for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer of Sarah Gonstead. Advocates have set up a new toll-free number, (800) 407-1178, for tipsters seeking the $10,000 reward.
A decent and honest district attorney's office, we believe, will not defend this prosecution, because today we are a more enlightened community than 20 years ago, and Nancy Brummer, and advocates are optimistic that champions for truth will come forward and our community, police and prosecutors will stand up for truth and free Penny Brummer.
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast," said Alexander Pope in his An Essay on Man (1734).
For Penny Brummer, her family, her extended family of supporters and in the name of justice for Sarah Gonstead, one hopes truth is soon realized.