RACINE — After spending 20 years behind bars, a former Racine man’s request for a new trial has been granted with a judge citing “striking similarities” between the attempted rape he was convicted of perpetrating and another Racine attack.
Daniel G. Scheidell, 66, is serving 25 years in prison for the May 20, 1995, attack on a former co-worker. She identified him as her attacker, but Scheidell has maintained his innocence for two decades.
Scheidell’s sister and his defense attorneys from the Wisconsin Innocence Project have been trying to clear his name by showing that another man — then-Racine resident Joseph M. Stephen, now 45 — tried to rape the Racine woman Scheidell was convicted of attacking.
They argue Stephen was a serial rapist who might have attacked this woman at knifepoint, as well as a second woman about five weeks later.
Racine County Circuit Court Judge John Jude ruled Wednesday that Scheidell is entitled to a new trial based in large part on the newly-discovered DNA evidence that Stephen committed an “eeriliy similar” crime on June 27, 1995, nearby in Racine.
“I find that the points of similarity are sufficient such that a jury can make a connection between Stephen and the perpetrator (of the first attack),” Jude wrote in his 18-page decision, in which he also vacated Scheidell’s convictions for attempted first-degree sexual assault and burglary.
Before Jude could order a new trial, Scheidell’s defense team — led by Carrie Sperling, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project — needed to prove that new evidence had been discovered since Scheidell’s trial that could cause a jury to reach a different conclusion.
In his decision, Jude stated a second jury could hear evidence of another possible perpetrator, similarities between the two crimes, and testimony from an expert in eyewitness identifications – who would note that the conditions under which Scheidell was identified as the assailant are “likely to lead to mistaken identity.”
As a result, “…I find that there is a reasonable probability that a jury would have a reasonable doubt as to Scheidell’s guilt. I find that Scheidell is entitled to a new trial,” Jude wrote.
Scheidell’s sister, Kathy Heisler of Racine, said she learned of the ruling Wednesday night.
“I am so relieved. It was wonderful news,” she said. “Of course what I’m hoping is the DA will say ‘I’m not going to retry him.’ It’s been 20 years.”
But the judge’s decision doesn’t guarantee Scheidell will receive that new trial.
“Based on the judge’s ruling, the Attorney General’s Office now has 45 days to determine whether or not the decision will be appealed,” District Attorney Rich Chiapete stated in an email Thursday. “We have already made contact with the Attorney General’s Office. We are forwarding all relevant information to the Attorney General’s Office for review.”
A status conference is set for Friday.
Scheidell remains in the Racine Correctional Institution in Sturtevant, but Sperling said he should be transferred back to the Racine County Jail soon.
“When the conviction is vacated, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Sperling said.
Prosecutors now have three options, she said. They could appeal, go to trial as the judge ruled, or “dismiss everything” and Scheidell would be free.
“Of course we hope they take the third,” Sperling said. “(There is) evidence Dan is absolutely innocent.”
‘Not in jeopardy of ever being convicted’
It wasn’t until members of the Wisconsin Innocence Project began investigating Scheidell’s case that the rape kit from the June 1995 attack was submitted to the State Crime Lab for DNA testing, court records show.
On July 23, 2013, a DNA match came back to Stephen, according to his criminal complaint.
Prosecutors in July charged Stephen, formerly of Racine, with first-degree sexual assault in that June 1995 attack.
Although DNA evidence allegedly matched Stephen to that attempted rape, Jude was required to dismiss the charge in September, at the prosecutor’s request, because the statute of limitations had expired.
Stephen is serving time in Jackson Correctional Institution for an unrelated December 1998 Racine sexual assault. He is eligible for parole on March 21, 2017, according to Wisconsin Department of Corrections records.
During the January hearing on the defense motion for a new trial, Assistant District Attorney Randy Schneider argued that Scheidell and Stephen looked very different in 1995: Scheidell is white, about 20 years older, and was nearly 20 pounds heavier than Stephen, who is a light-skinned black man.
“Although DNA evidence directly links Stephen to (the second woman’s attack), Stephen is not convicted of that crime, will never be convicted of that crime, and is not in jeopardy of ever being convicted of that crime,” Jude wrote.