By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A Wausau man accused of savagely beating a woman a dozen years ago was properly convicted, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
James Emerson, who is black, had raised multiple arguments on appeal, including claims he was forced to face a jury from a predominantly white county, his trial attorney was ineffective and a judge improperly allowed evidence that he had propositioned women outside bars. The 3rd District Court of Appeals rejected all of his arguments.
Emerson’s appellate attorney, Scott B. Roberts, didn’t immediately return a phone message left at his office seeking comment.
Prosecutors say Emerson and 37-year-old Rhonda Mertes were among a group of people who left a bar around closing time in December 1999. Later that morning, joggers discovered Mertes’ body in a pool of blood near an abandoned building. A bloody rock lay nearby, her clothes were torn and her pants were around her legs, according to court documents.
Marathon County Circuit Judge Gregory Grau later called the slaying the worse crime he’d ever seen in the county.
Prosecutors charged Emerson with first-degree intentional homicide in 2007, after forensic scientists said they had connected DNA and hair found on Mertes’ body to him. A jury convicted him and Grau sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole on the same day in 2009.
Emerson, now 48, argued on appeal the jury, selected from Iowa County at Emerson’s request to counter pre-trial publicity in the Wausau area, was prejudiced against him because that county has few black people. But the appeals court said he never objected to using Iowa County jurors and pointed out that Grau had found the percentage of blacks in Iowa County was similar to Marathon County.
Emerson also contended his trial attorney, listed in online court records as Peter Thompson, was ineffective. He claimed Thompson falsely accused him of threatening him during a jail meeting, didn’t spend enough time talking with him in jail and should have called an expert witness to testify the DNA on Mertes could have come from someone else.
The appeals court noted that Grau found Emerson started the jail confrontation with his lawyer in hopes of delaying the trial and failed to show why he needed more time to discuss his case. The court said Emerson also failed to show how Thompson’s decision not to call the DNA expert was deficient, noting Thompson still tried to show the DNA tests weren’t conclusive. Thompson didn’t immediately return a phone message left at his office Tuesday.
Emerson went on to argue Grau shouldn’t have allowed evidence showing Emerson approached three women outside bars seeking sex. According to the appeals court opinion, he approached a woman outside a bar in 1996 with a shovel handle asking for oral sex and in 2000 tried to coax two women outside a nightclub to a hotel for sex.
Emerson maintained the incidents were different than a homicide case, but the appeals court found the judge admitted the evidence because it related to why Emerson would have approached Mertes.
The state Justice Department handles felony appeals for local prosecutors. Agency spokeswoman Dana Brueck issued a statement Tuesday that read: “We found nothing that would justify a reversal of Emerson’s conviction for this brutal crime. Neither did the Court.”