Daniel Scheidell - Wrongful Conviction

May 26, 2021

At about 5:30 a.m.of May 20, 1995 a 26-year-old woman living in an apartment in Racine Wisconsin awoke to find a man straddling her with his hand over her mouth and a knife at her neck, his face covered by a green jacket. As she struggled, he began slapping her face, but she managed to get one hand free and strike back, at last kicking him off the bed and grabbing a pistol from her dresser. She 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 and 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 had last seen 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. testifid that she began working at the Chancery restaurant in August 1994 where she met Scheidell, known as "Danno", 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 did handymand 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, as J.D. was chatting to members of a band playing there, 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 was angry because she had made him wait and accused her of being sexually involved with the band members. She refused his offer to buy a drink, and said she was leaving because she had to get up early for work. Scheidell insisted he would give her a wake-up call at 5:30 a.m., and she left.

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.
J.D. testifies that during the attack, when she shouted, “Danno, what…are you doing?” the attacker hesitated, pulled back, and then struck her again. She said she shouted the name several more times and that each time, the attacker paused and then resumed hitting her.
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 palm print 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. which took place June 25, 1995, just a few weeks after J.D. was attacked and just four blocks away. 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.
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, an expert in sex offender risk assessment and profiling, Dr. Nick Yackovich, testified that in his opinion, given the rarity of a home intruder rapes, the similarities between the two attacks were more than just coincidence: both had a signature ritualistic element. Furthermore he testified that anyone who would commit such an attack would likely have committed other crimes previously, and since Scheidell had no record, he did not consider him a likely suspect.
Dr. Jeffrey Neuschatz, an expert in eyewitness identification, testified that J.D.’s identification was unreliable because of the facts that the attack occurred in dim lighting, a weapon was involved and the attacker’s face was concealed.
In June 2015, Racine County Circuit Court Judge John Jude granted the petition finding the points of similarity "sufficient" justification for vacating Scheidell’s convictions, and ordering a new trial.
Scheidell, who battled colon cancer while in prison and used a wheelchair, was released on bond on July 15, 2015.
Although 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.

by Hülya Genç

Read: Legal Resources of US Citizens

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