By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A jury properly convicted a Kenosha man of sexually assaulting and killing a 20-year-old woman even though some jurors caught a glimpse of a witness’ file that branded the killer a sex offender, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.
Prosecutors charged Joshua Braithwaite in 2014 of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing 20-year-old Lashe Zalar, whose burned body was found in 2012 by firefighters at a Kenosha park as they battled a grass fire.
Braithwaite argued on appeal he deserved a new trial, saying that now-deceased Judge S. Michael Wilk barred prosecutors from introducing any evidence of Braithwaite’s juvenile adjudication for a home invasion and sexual assault of a child in 2004. A juvenile adjudication is similar to a conviction in adult court.
Braithwaite’s probation agent testified during the trial about how Braithwaite had missed a meeting on the morning of the homicide. The agent brought a file to the stand; it had a red sticker with the words “sexual abuse” or “sexual offender” in bold print.
Two alternate jurors told a victim witness coordinator that some of the jurors saw the sticker. The judge allowed deliberations to continue rather than question the jurors about the sticker. After the verdict, seven of the 12 jurors told the judge they had seen the sticker, prompting Braithwaite to request a mistrial.
Wilk refused after all the jurors said they didn’t take the sticker into consideration because it wasn’t evidence. One juror called the sticker a deliberate attempt by prosecutors to influence jurors but said he was able to look past it.
The District 2 Court of Appeals sided with Wilk, ruling the judge was correct to question the jurors and they were clearly able to disregard the sticker. The appellate court added there was still enough evidence to convict Braithwaite regardless, including his DNA on her body and a cellmate’s testimony that Braithwaite bragged about killing her.
Braithwaite’s attorney, Dennis Schertz, said he hadn’t read the ruling yet but was “obviously disappointed.” He said he doesn’t understand how anyone could ignore a juror saying the state was trying to introduce evidence that wasn’t allowed.