By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Enough new evidence exists to cast doubt on the guilt of a man convicted of killing an 18-year-old woman and hanging her naked body from a tree in 1987, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled Wednesday.
The Second District Court of Appeals upheld the January 2011 decision of a lower court judge ordering a new trial for Terry Vollbrecht.
“There is a reasonable probability that a jury, looking at both the old evidence and the new evidence, would have a reasonable doubt as to Vollbrecht’s guilt,” the appeals court said.
Vollbrecht, who for decades has maintained his innocence, was convicted in 1989 in the slaying of Angela Hackl and sentenced to life in prison.
Hackl was found in the woods outside Sauk City in 1987, having been shot three times in the back and hung by the neck from a tree branch with a chain. A pile of brush was arranged beneath her body in a makeshift pyre.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up Vollbrecht’s case and has worked for more than a decade to free him. The state argued that the new evidence likely would not result in Vollbrecht’s conviction being overturned.
Attorneys with the state Department of Justice were reviewing the decision to determine whether to appeal to the Supreme Court, said DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck.
Vollbrecht’s lead attorney, Innocence Project co-director Keith Findley, said he hoped the department would not appeal.
“We’re obviously very happy, gratified that the court saw to affirm the trial judge,” Findley said.
Vollbrecht’s attorneys argued that evidence suggests that it was another man, Kim Brown, who killed Hackl. Brown confessed to a similar killing that happened six weeks later in Oxford, about 30 miles from where Hackl was found. Like Hackl, Brown’s victim Linda Nachreiner was in a secluded area, partially clothes, bound and shot in the back. Brown also confessed to having chained his victim to a tree by her neck.
Brown is serving a life sentence in that case.
State investigators decided in 1987 that Nachreiner and Hackl’s deaths weren’t similar.
But, according to the Innocence Project, prosecutors withheld an affidavit from one of Brown’s fellow inmates who claimed that Brown told him he liked to chain women to trees and set them on fire.
The Innocence Project also argued that another man in jail with Brown in 1987 said Brown told him it was better to “chain them up and when done with them, burn them.”
In 1992 one of Brown’s fellow prison inmates said he overheard Brown say he raped, shot and tied Hackl to a tree. Brown said he was going to set her ablaze, but that the lighter didn’t work, according to the Innocence Project. A year later another prison inmate said Brown told him someone else was being punished for Hackl’s death and he, Brown, had killed her.
The Innocence Project also has argued DNA tests found semen from an unknown third party on the sleeping bag and on Hackl’s body.
According to court documents, Hackl was last seen at Hondo’s Bar in Sauk City during the early morning hours of Friday, June 12, 1987. She left the bar with Vollbrecht, who drove the couple away in Hackl’s boyfriend’s car.
Hackl’s naked body was found hanging from a tree in the “The Pines,” a popular party area for young people in the woods outside the city, on the following Monday. She had been strung up with a tire chain from the trunk of her boyfriend’s car, sexually assaulted and shot in the back three times. It appeared the killer had planned to burn the body.
Vollbrecht told investigators he met Hackl at the bar. He said they drove to the woods and had consensual sex on a sleeping bag, and Hackl then drove him back to Sauk City.
But several people who knew him and were in the area where he said Hackl dropped him off told detectives they never saw him. The day after Hackl disappeared, Vollbrecht told his hairstylist he didn’t do it or if he did, he didn’t remember.
Prosecutors contended that Vollbrecht sexually assaulted and killed Hackl after she resisted his advances. He was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault in December 1989. A state appeals court has twice upheld his convictions.