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Court rejects appeal in Mereness case

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Kevin Murphy
November 23, 2007
— A state appeals court ruled Wednesday that a Rock County judge made a harmless error in allowing a police officer to testify that the mother of William J. Mereness said her son confessed to killing his estranged wife.

The District 4 Court of Appeals concluded that it was improper for Judge Richard Werner to allow LaBelle Mereness’ statement to police while she was in the hospital, but enough other evidence supported Mereness’ conviction for first-degree intentional homicide.


On appeal, Mereness’ attorney, Philip Brehm of Janesville, argued that it violated his client’s right to confront a witness because LaBelle Mereness died before the defense could question her about her statement.


An Appleton police officer testified at Mereness’ trial about two conversations that LaBelle Mereness told him she had with her son within days of Jennifer Judge’s murder Nov. 22, 2002, in Janesville.


During one conversation, LaBelle Mereness said her son was holding a carving knife and lying in the bathtub in her Appleton home. She asked him what he was doing, and he responded that he wanted to die. She then asked Mereness, “Did you kill Jennifer?” And he said, “Yes, I’m really sorry,” according to the police officer.


LaBelle Mereness also told the officer that her son said he didn’t want to go to prison for 70 years for killing Jennifer, according to the appeals decision.


His mother’s statement was the strongest evidence against Mereness in what the state and defense both said was an otherwise circumstantial case. Excluding it would have created reasonable doubt, Brehm said.


However, the testimony of James Mereness Sr., Mereness’ father, supported LaBelle Mereness’ statement, according to the decision.


James Mereness Sr. also was present when his son, while lying in the tub, told his parents that that he had killed Judge. James Mereness Sr. testified that when his wife asked the younger Mereness if “he had done it,” his son said, “I done it,” according to the decision.


James Mereness Sr. also said he didn’t want to hear any more because he knew he might have to testify against his son.


Although Brehm argued that the father’s testimony was ambiguous, the appeals court disagreed, saying there was no other explainable context for his remarks, which they found “untainted” and supported the guilty verdict.


The court also rejected Brehm’s argument that Mereness shouldn’t have been cross-examined about creating a false check in a divorce proceeding seven years before his wife’s murder. Brehm contended that the false swearing was too remote and irrelevant to present to the jury.


Instead, the court concluded it was relevant because it involved his spouse and shed light on his credibility.


Finally, the court found that Werner didn’t err in not moving the trial to another county due to the amount of pre-trial publicity. Although the case initially generated considerable local media coverage—including a story about a possible prior attempt by Mereness to kill his wife, Mereness allegedly trying to poison an ex-wife, and his criminal record—the stories didn’t prejudice the jury, according to the decision.


“The articles about which Mereness complains contained factual, non-editorial reporting about the murder and about Mereness’ criminal history … In any case, we cannot characterize the publicity as ‘rabble rousing’ or an attempt to influence public opinion against Mereness,” Judge Burnie Bridge wrote in the 17-page opinion.


In a telephone interview, Brehm said he would ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case in hopes of ordering a new trial for Mereness.


“The mother’s testimony was the strongest of the grounds for appeal I have with the cross examination for false swearing second and the change of venue the third,” Brehm said.


Mereness, 53, was sentenced to life in prison Nov. 3, 2003, for the murder of Judge, who was a popular Spanish teacher at Janesville Craig High School.



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