Murder conviction overturned
Retrial ordered for Magolski
By Robert Cloud
A state appeals court Thursday overturned the conviction of a New London man accused of killing his 77-year-old neighbor, James Park, in 2007.
After a three-day trial in March 2012, a jury found Chad Magolski, 38, guilty of first-degree intentional homicide.
Waupaca County Circuit Court Judge Philip Kirk sentenced Magolski to life in prison without parole.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project appealed Magolski’s conviction, arguing the burglary conviction was prejudicial and irrelevant to the case, while raising questions about the prosecution’s DNA evidence.
In reversing the conviction, the District IV Court of Appeals ruled that the circuit court should not have allowed testimony regarding the burglary.
Park’s body found
On Dec. 15, 2007, New London police were called to check on James Park because his neighbors had not seen him for several days.
After gaining entry to Park’s apartment, located across the street from the police station, the officer found his body partially decayed under a table on the living room floor.
The killer had stabbed Park numerous times, turned out his pockets, and ransacked his apartment. A money clip was missing.
Investigators found a bloody knife and towel in the kitchen sink.
Magolski was a suspect early in the investigation. He lived in an upstairs apartment and had a criminal record. Police interviewed him numerous times and searched his apartment twice.
However, investigators found no physical evidence in Magolski’s apartment linking him to the murder. They did not find any blood, weapons or items that may have been stolen from Park’s apartment.
The Waupaca County District Attorney’s Office did not file charges.
More than three years later, the state Department of Justice (DOJ) charged Magolski with Park’s murder.
Questionable DNA evidence
At the trial, the prosecution presented testimony regarding a bar of soap in Park’s bathroom sink and a bloody towel dropped into the toilet. They argued that the killer used the soap and towel to wash the blood off his hands after stabbing Park.
The State Crime Lab found a mixture of DNA on the soap. In 2008, using then-current protocols, the analysts determined that Park and Magolski were possible contributors to that DNA mixture.
However, the protocols for determining the source of DNA changed in 2011. Under the new protocols, the crime lab analysts still determined that Park was a possible contributor, but they could not determine if Magolski was a contributor.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project argued that the circuit court should not have allowed the prosecution to present DNA evidence based on the older, less reliable protocols.
“When there are two inconsistent analyses of the same evidence by the same lab and expert, and both parties agree that one of those analyses is more scientifically reliable, the jury should hear only the more reliable analysis,” the appeal motion argued.
During the trial, Troy Nielsen, Magolski’s public defender, cross-examined James Andreas, the DNA analyst for Park’s murder investigation. Nielsen focused on what investigators did not find in Park’s apartment.
Going through all the objects, one-by-one, that were swabbed for DNA – the knife used in the killing, door handles, light switches, the bathroom sink, pieces of furniture from Park’s apartment – Nielsen asked Andreas if Magolski’s DNA had been found.
Out of dozens of DNA samples taken from the crime scene, not one could be positively identified as coming from Magolski.
The appeals court did not address the admissibility of the prosecution’s DNA evidence because the relevance of the burglary was all that was necessary to overturn the case.
Focus on character
With no physical evidence linking Magolski to the murder, DOJ prosecutors focused the jury’s attention on the defendant’s character.
During the trial, jurors heard testimony that Magolski visited the auto dealership where he had been a former employee, then hid until the business closed and the building was empty.
The officer investigating the burglary testified that Magolski had been fired from his job at the dealership, he left the pry bar used to gain entrance to an office at the scene of the crime and he refused to answer the door when police went to his apartment to question him,
In his closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General David Wambach asked the jury to compare the circumstances surrounding the Park murder in December 2007 to those associated with the dealership burglary in May 2000.
“All of the facts tell you it was not a spur of the moment crime,” Wambach said regarding the burglary and the murder, arguing that both crimes were skillfully planned.
Wambach used the burglary to portray Magolski as “clever, cunning and crafty.”
The brief appealing Magolski’s conviction observed that the prosecutor used a synonym for “guile” 33 times in his closing arguments.
Wambach repeatedly told the jury to focus more on Magolski’s character than on the forensics evidence.
“A clever, cunning and crafty person is exactly the sort of person who can commit this sort of crime and then count on you good folks not being smart enough to figure it out,” Wambuch said. “Because he’ll be able to be using his guile to convince you didn’t do it.”
The appeals brief noted that the prosecution “used Magolski’s character traits to justify the shortcomings in its own case.”
The appellate judges found, “There is no reasonable basis upon which a court could conclude that the burglary evidence is relevant to proving Magolski’s identity as the perpetrator in Park’s murder.”