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The Lynching of a Madison Lesbian: Wisconsin’s Wrongful Conviction of Penny Brummer


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Madison, Wisconsin. 

By now, many readers have seen or heard of Making a Murderer, the tale of vengeful law enforcement hicks from Manitowoc County Wisconsin preying on an intellectually challenged juvenile and framing a man suing Manitowoc County for $36 million in a civil lawsuit for a wrongful conviction.

While shocking to some, the capacity and inclination of law enforcement to harass, arrest, prosecute and convict is axiomatic to most criminal defense attorneys, intellectually honest scholars and certainly those citizens on the receiving end of the blunt instrument known as law enforcement by the “Sovereign,” the “state in all its power and glory,” as described to me by federal appellate attorney, Sidney Powell, a former Asst. U.S. Attorney.

The victims of Manitowoc County, (a region in east-central Wisconsin from which I hail), are a disgrace. But the progressive fountain of Dane County Wisconsin (Madison) is arguably worse than Manty County in the criminal justice realm. Folks, we live in a police-prosecutor-prison state, (and its existence a compelling argument for a coalition of the American libertarian right and left)

I present to you one Penny Brummer, an out lesbian who joined the military right of River Valley High School in Springgreen, Wisconsin and served honorably in the Air Force for five years before returning home and then moving to Madison in the early 1990s.

In her mid-20s, Penny fell in and out of love, drank beer and bar-hopped, rode motorcycles, living her life in a similar fashion to most young 20-somethings in Madison, Wisconsin.

In the early to late 1990s, Madison was not a welcoming place for the LGBTQ community by Madison law enforcement, whatever you may have heard about Madison being an progressive oasis with an enlightened police force.

Police harassment and hostility was tolerated by progressives and to this day, for example, the former Club 3054 on East Washington Street, the main drag, is recalled for targeting by the cops by former patrons.

So it was one March 15, 1994, after Penny broke up with her girlfriend, and looking for company called friends and co-workers to “go out” on a Monday night. Sarah Gonstead said, yes, and Ms. Gonstead and Penny happily bar-hopped before Penny dropped Gonstead off at a frequented short-cut to her ex’s place, where Penny saw Gonstead strike up a conversation with some guys next to a line of motorcycles, one of the men with long hair and slight build.

No one saw Sarah Gonstead alive again. Gonstead’s body was found on April 9 outside of Madison.

Madison police and the Dane County Sheriff’s detectives decided Penny, 24-years-old, was the perpetrator. No physical evidence, no weapon, no motive, no determined crime scene, just a theory—what is known as police “tunnel vision,” disregarding all exculpatory facts and evidence that would not support or disconfirm the theory.

For example, and I offer just one point, as recounted by author and attorney Sheila Berry in her book, Who Killed Sarah: “David Zoromski, who reported seeing a suspicious man standing by the open passenger door of a parked pickup truck exactly where Sarah’s body was later found, was told by a Dane County Sheriff’s Deputy, ‘What you saw is all very interesting, but we have a suspect and it doesn’t fit.’ The man seen by Mr. Zoromski matched the description of the person Penny said she saw Sarah talking to near the Taco Bell at East Washington Avenue and North Oak Street in Madison, [by the short-cut], after she dropped her off that night. Police identified him and knew he was a convicted felon with a long history of violence toward women — but they never followed up on this lead.”

Attorney Berry was asked by her daughter to do something after reading a piece by Ingrid Ricks about the case in The Advocate in 1995, so she penned a book.

So Penny Brummer sits in prison in Taycheedah Correctional Institution in east-central Wisconsin, prosecuted by the district attorney’s office of Brian Blanchard (2001-2010), and trial presided over by former Judge Patrick Fiedler, former Gov. Tommy Thompson’s close political ally and comrade in the lock-em-up-and-make-their-lives-a-living-hell politics that won Thompson multiple elections with Scott Walker while he was serving in the State Assembly Committee on Corrections and the Courts.

A new trial for Penny Brummer is demanded by advocates who began a petition this week. They also offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for the death of Sarah Gonstead, and an 800 number for tips at 800 407-1178.

Brummer today sits in prison serving her life sentence. Former DA Blanchard is a state appellate judge running unopposed this year, and serves as Vice-Chair of the Wisconsin Judicial Council, revamped and politicized by Wisconsin Republicans and Scott Walker.

Do Penny Brummer and Wisconsin a favor and sign and circulate the petition for a new trial. We need a win and so does Penny. Penny Brummer could not be convicted today, explaining perhaps why the current DA refuses to revisit the case.

As Prof. Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project concludes last weekend in a column in the Washington Post: “We must make the system more responsive to post-conviction claims of injustice and less bound by blind obedience to finality.”

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