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  • 89 – Attorney Targets New Trial on 40-Year-Old Murder Case — Can Recent Evidence Free Her Client?

89 – Attorney Targets New Trial on 40-Year-Old Murder Case — Can Recent Evidence Free Her Client?

89 – Attorney Targets New Trial on 40-Year-Old Murder Case — Can Recent Evidence Free Her Client?

In 1980, Iowan man William Beeman was accused of murdering a woman named Michiel Winkel. However, Winkel was seen by several witnesses for days after the alleged time of her murder. Despite this testimony, Beeman has remained in prison for the last forty years.

Enter Erica Nichols Cook, the Director Wrongful Conviction Division at the Iowa State Public Defender.

Cook has spent the last several years attempting to get Beeman a new trial based on previous, possibly intentionally undisclosed evidence — evidence that could exonerate him. In this installment, she rehashes the outlandish circumstances of the case, provides updates on its appeal status, and discusses the challenges of reforming the criminal justice system in one of the most immutable states in the country.

Show Notes

[00:18] Backgrounds of Erica Nichols Cook and Jeff Wright.

[01:23] Thank you both for coming on the show! Erica, I’m going to start with you. As Director of the Wrongful Conviction Division (WCD) in Iowa’s Office of the State Public Defender, how serious is the problem of innocent people being locked up in America, in your opinion?

[01:49] Throughout the world, there have been 2,700 exonerations since 1989, only 16 of which were in Iowa.

[2:20] Sounds like Iowa is a little bit behind the times… on Open Mike, we’ve talked to many people who deal with the conviction integrity units inside the prosecutor’s office. You are inside the defender’s office, (Jeff Wright who is on the podcast with us) which is the complete opposite. I don’t quite understand it, because you guys are the defenders of these people — of course you think these people are wrongfully convicted… so what good does it do? Jeff, I’m going to direct that question to you.

[3:30] So the difference is you have a department inside the Public Defender’s Office that specifically looks at post-conviction cases. This started in about 2015 — what led to this division being created?

[06:49] Do you guys still have private attorneys who can handle criminal cases, a court-appointed system?

[07:22] Not every state has a state-run public defender’s office — Michigan doesn’t have one. I’ve asked several criminal defense attorneys why that is. Do you think it’s important to have one overseer of all the public defenders in the state, as opposed to on a county-wide basis?

[08:39] What are some of the recurring issues that have led to so many innocent people going to prison? You mentioned there are less than 20 in Iowa, which is shockingly low… you know there are hundreds, if not thousands more. What are some trends that you’re seeing?

[09:21] You’re talking about Brady violations… a lot of our listeners don’t know what that means — could you give us a brief lesson on that?

[11:16] That’s a fascinating process, I’ve never heard of a deposition in a criminal case. That means you can sit with a police officer, detective, or investigator and ask if there’s any exculpatory evidence. Based on their truth and veracity, you get what they tell you… whether or not it’s the right authority person. Am I interpreting this correctly? Because it all sounds very strange!

[13:31] It sounds like you need a law change, and you have a friendly lieutenant governor there… but if they’re not going to hand you a report, how do they comply with Brady?

[14:01] It sounds like a waste of time, money, legal resources… you might have twenty people to depose — who has the time for that, especially if you’re deposed or a court-appointed attorney?

[14:54] What’s the recipe for successfully finding the right experts and preventing wrongful convictions in the future?

[15:52] You talk about violation of due process… are you referring to the 1980 case of William Beeman? Let’s dive into it.

[20:42] Was the interrogation recorded? Or was there any evidence tying him to the crime scene?

[22:05] The one piece of evidence you haven’t talked about yet — and tell me if I read your briefs wrong — there were SEVEN eyewitnesses who saw the victim after the time frame during which she was allegedly killed.

[22:59] Two of the exculpatory witnesses were also hypnotized by law enforcement to get more information about Michiel Winkel’s whereabouts.

[23:50] In 2019, prosecutors turned over an 853-page investigative report after a judge ordered discovery to obtain DNA testing of a semen sample located at the scene of the crime. In this document, they found eyewitnesses accounts that would have corroborated two other eyewitness accounts of seeing Winkel out and about AFTER the time period in which Beeman allegedly killed her. The trial attorneys did not have any of this information available to them before they went to trial on behalf of Beeman.

[24:45] So the jury did hear from two or three witnesses that she was alive after the date prosecution said she was killed. That was actually argued and presented, and they still didn’t believe it?

[25:30] The body was not kept in a cooler between the time it was located and when an autopsy was conducted the next day. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy was a family practice doctor, who wasn’t experienced in forensics.

[26:30] The body was in a stage of rigor mortis that corroborated other timeline witnesses that saw Winkel after the alleged time of her death.

[27:04] What is the state saying now? Why are there still roadblocks? Why is there no honest prosecutor stepping up to help exonerate this man, what is going on there?

[29:26] When a free society decides to imprison its people, it needs to do everything within its power to ensure that they’re guilty. And if there is anything that determines later that they’re not, it needs to be given full weight and evaluated.

[30:10] It feels like every day I’m getting a notification that someone has been exonerated. The momentum is here, but it doesn’t seem like Iowa has caught up yet. My question is… have you been in front of a judge with this new evidence? What did they say?

[32:27] So the court of appeals hasn’t ruled… how is the makeup of your Supreme Court — I assume pretty Republican? Is your governor a Republican? Lieutenant governor as well? He seems pretty sympathetic as a former defender, though…

[34:22] I’ve become friends with some exonerees here in Michigan, and some of their stories go back to a newspaper columnist who took interest in their story and got the attention of the public on their side. Has this man received good public attention in Iowa yet?

[36:09] The right person has to hear it, and the right person has to get mad. This DNA evidence is so important, and there are so many innocence clinics just focusing on DNA… I assume you haven’t searched their evidence room?

[36:30] They HAVE searched the evidence room. There are boxes from 1979, but not 1980. There is no box labeled “Beeman” or “Winkel” and no explanation.

[37:16] How old is Mr. Beeman these days?

[37:40] Thank you both for your work on the Beeman case. Please let me know what happens with the court of appeals. Let’s try to get some publicity out there so people know what’s happening. Best of luck and keep fighting.

[38:28] Thank you for watching Open Mike. If anybody you know is interested or experienced in these cases, please forward this episode to them. We really appreciate your support. Take care.

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