In the early morning hours of May 20, 1995, a 26-year-old woman awoke to the sound of window blinds crashing to the floor in the bathroom of her apartment in Racine, Wisconsin. She noticed the window was open about a foot wider than she left it. She closed it and returned to bed.
At about 5:30 a.m., she was awakened by a masked man whose head was covered by a green jacket. He was straddling her with his hand over her mouth and a knife at her neck. She struggled and he began slapping her face. She managed to get one hand free and strike back. When she shouted, “Danno, what…are you doing?” the attacker hesitated, pulled back, and then struck her again.
She shouted the name several more times. Each time, the attacker paused and then resumed hitting her. The woman managed to get her legs free and kicked him off the bed. As he walked toward the kitchen, she grabbed a pistol from her dresser and ordered him to leave. When he came toward her, she cocked the pistol and threatened to shoot him. The man then left.
The woman, who was identified as J.D., called the police. As she was talking to the first officer to respond, J.D. saw 46-year-old Daniel Scheidell coming down the stairs. J.D. identified him as her attacker. The officer took Scheidell upstairs to his apartment. There, Scheidell said he formerly worked with J.D. at the Chancery Restaurant in Racine and that he last saw her the night before at the restaurant.
Scheidell was arrested and charged with attempted sexual assault and armed burglary.
Scheidell went to trial in Racine County Circuit Court in October 1995. J.D. testified that she began working at the Chancery restaurant in August 1994 where she met Scheidell, who was working as a server-trainer. In May 1995, when she and her two roommates were searching for a new apartment, Scheidell suggested she look at an apartment in the building where he lived. She moved into a one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of Scheidell’s building that month. And at about the same time, Scheidell quit working at the restaurant for reasons not related to J.D.
J.D. told the jury that after she moved in, Scheidell, who performed work in the building, occasionally stopped by to chat. During one of those chats, they agreed to meet for a drink at the Chancery after J.D.’s shift on the night of Friday, May 19, 1995, although both agreed it was not a date. At the end of her shift, J.D. was talking to members of a band playing there when Scheidell approached and asked her to come to the bar where he would buy her a drink.
J.D. kept talking to the band members for about 15 minutes and then came to the bar. She said Scheidell accused her of being sexually involved with the band members and said he was angry because she made him wait. She refused his offer to buy a drink, and said she was leaving because she had to get up early for work. She left after Scheidell insisted he would give her a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m.
She testified that Scheidell was known at the restaurant as “Danno.”
A responding officer testified that when J.D. confronted Scheidell in the hallway on the morning of the attack, she said he had a key to her apartment (which he did because he had painted her bathroom). The officer said Scheidell replied, “How do you know they didn’t come through the bathroom window. It’s not locked.”
The prosecution contended that Scheidell knew the entry point was the bathroom window because he was the attacker.
The officer who arrested Scheidell said he looked like he had just awakened. He did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and was not flushed or out of breath.
Testimony showed that police searched Scheidell’s apartment thoroughly, but failed to find a green jacket, a mask, or the serrated knife that J.D. described. The officers also searched the entire building, including an empty apartment on the third floor, the basement, the boiler room, a service closet, and the hallways. Nothing was found.
The defense sought to allow an in-court comparison of Scheidell’s hand to a palmprint found on the bathroom window sill to show that his hand was much smaller than the print recovered there. The trial judge, however, refused to allow it after the prosecution objected on the ground that the defense failed to have an expert witness to testify about the comparison.
The defense also tried to present evidence of a similar attack on another woman, K.C. That attack occurred on June 25, 1995, just a few weeks after J.D. was attacked and just four blocks away. The attacker entered through a previously damaged window. He wore a hood and possibly a mask, and carried a butcher knife. The defense argued that the attacks were similar enough to suggest that the same man committed both assaults. The judge refused to allow that evidence as well.
Scheidell testified and denied the attack. He said he knew the bathroom window was unlocked because he had helped J.D. paint the bathroom and he had purchased chain locks for the window, but had not yet installed them. He said he saw J.D. at the Chancery the night before and that they decided he would give her a wake-up call.
On October 11, 1995, the jury convicted Scheidell of attempted sexual assault and armed burglary. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Scheidell appealed and in 1998, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed his convictions and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the evidence of the other sexual assault should have been allowed. However, the prosecution appealed and in 1999, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reinstated his convictions.
Scheidell sought help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. Ultimately, the sexual assault kit from the attack on K.C. was submitted for DNA testing. In 2013, the tests revealed the DNA profile of Joseph R. Stephen, who was serving a prison sentence for a 1998 sexual assault in Racine. Based on the test result, the Racine County District Attorney charged Stephen with the assault of K.C. The charge was dismissed because it was filed too late—the statute of limitations had expired.
In 2014, the Wisconsin Innocence Project filed a post-conviction petition for a new trial on behalf of Scheidell. At an evidentiary hearing in January 2015, Dr. Nick Yackovich, an expert in sex offender risk assessment and profiling, testified that “a home intruder rape by someone with a mask and a knife is a very small percent of the overall rapes that at least we are aware of.”
Yackovich said that the similarities between the two attacks were more than just coincidence. Both had a ritualistic element and it was likely that the same person committed both assaults. He also testified that based on interviews with Scheidell, he did not consider him a likely suspect because he had no criminal record. According to Yackovich, someone who would commit such an attack would likely have committed other crimes previously.
Dr. Jeffrey Neuschatz, an expert in eyewitness identification, testified that J.D.’s identification was suspect because the attack occurred in dim lighting, a weapon was involved, and the attacker’s face was covered.
In June 2015, Racine County Circuit Court Judge John Jude granted the petition, vacated Scheidell’s convictions, and ordered a new trial. “I find that the points of similarity are sufficient such that a jury can make a connection between Stephen and the perpetration of the (J.D.) assault,” the judge ruled.
Scheidell, who battled colon cancer while in prison and used a wheelchair, was released on bond on July 15, 2015.
The prosecution appealed the ruling and in March 2017, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the decision. The Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the case. On September 21, 2017, the prosecution dismissed the charges.