Homicide conviction reversed by judge

(Published October. 10, 2006, 8:38 a.m.)

By Mike Heine/The Week

A jury's first-degree reckless homicide conviction of Carol L. LaPorte and her subsequent 10-year prison sentence were overturned by Walworth County Judge Michael Gibbs Friday.

Gibbs ruled that LaPorte had ineffective assistance of counsel because defense attorney Thomas Brown failed to have key witnesses testify, including a forensic pathologist.

LaPorte, 36, of 7622 S. Talcott Ave., Chicago, was convicted April 27, 2005, of reckless homicide and aggravated battery for stabbing her husband, Anthony 'Tony' LaPorte, in the heart. The incident occurred during an altercation in their Williams Bay condominium in September 2003.

At trial, District Attorney Phil Koss relied heavily on the testimony of Milwaukee County Medical Examiner Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, who conducted the autopsy.

Jentzen said the steak knife Carol LaPorte used to stab Anthony went through the third and fourth ribs, through the right ventricle of his heart and pierced other vital organs. The four-inch blade went eight inches into his chest, Jentzen testified.

"My opinion is this is a classic, overhand blow, which would be an intentional type of blow," he testified.

Carol LaPorte testified that the wound was caused in self-defense. She and Anthony were involved in a physical altercation after coming home from a night of drinking and partying Sept. 28, 2003.

She testified that she grabbed the knife to scare and threaten Anthony, but he lunged at her, causing the knife to accidentally stab downward into his chest.

An affidavit from Shaku S. Teas, a forensic pathologist, said the wound could have been caused that way.

"The defendant's version of events is consistent with the anatomical findings," Teas said in the affidavit, contradicting Jentzen's testimony.

Once a sharp-pointed object pierces the skin it is easy to push into a body if it does not strike bone, Teas wrote.

Also, the measured depth of the stab wound was taken improperly, Teas wrote. Anthony LaPorte was lying on his back when the measurements were taken and the organs would have been more relaxed, making the wound seem longer. If Anthony were crouching when he was stabbed, his organs would have been more compact and susceptible to being hit with such a blade, Teas wrote.

Brown did not question Jentzen before the trial and was not prepared for cross-examination, said new defense attorney Jerome Buting.

"He never went in and talked to him," Buting said. "(Brown) made an assumption from looking at a report that there was not going to be any issue that was seriously contested. That was clearly wrong... He was not prepared to answer it with a contrary view or even question the state's doctor."

Brown also decided not to bring in defense witnesses to testify on Carol's behalf. Carol and her sister, Catherine Reider, both wrote in affidavits that Anthony had frequently argued with Carol and sometimes threw things at her, especially after drinking.

"Attorney Brown told me that he wanted Tony to look good to the jury and that he wanted me to look bad so he could argue that my behavior on that night caused Tony to go berserk," Carol wrote in her affidavit.

Such information will come out if there is a new trial, Buting said.

The first trial, "was not the whole picture of who Carol was and what happened that night," Buting said.

Carol LaPorte, who has been in custody since the conviction, is pleased with Gibbs' decision to allow a new trial.

"She hasn't been truly happy since the day this tragic event occurred," Buting said. "It's not like she's anxious to go through the whole ordeal again herself or have the LaPorte family go through the ordeal again. But her story has to be told. The truth has to be told. She's happy that she has the opportunity to do that now, as painful as it may be."

Koss said it's the first time a homicide conviction has been overturned in his tenure as county prosecutor.

Koss hasn't made a decision, but could ask the state Attorney General's office to appeal Gibbs' decision.

Carol LaPorte will remain in Walworth County Jail in lieu of a $250,000 bond. Efforts are being made to have her released, Buting said.

A status hearing was set for 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 17.





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