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August 23, 2019

6/20/2019 7:29:00 AM
Supreme Court won't hear Martinson appeal
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
of the River News

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will not review the sentencing decision in the double homicide case of Ashlee Martinson, the young Oneida County woman convicted of murdering her mother and stepfather in their rural Piehl home in March 2015.

The state's highest court announced Monday it has voted to accept five new cases and officially denied review in several others, including Martinson's appeal of a decision released by the 3rd District Court of Appeals in February where the court determined that Oneida County Circuit Judge Michael Bloom did not err when he concluded at sentencing that Martinson did indeed have a choice on the morning of March 7, 2015 when she shot her stepfather Thomas Ayers and stabbed her mother Jennifer Ayers in their town of Piehl home.

Attorneys for Martinson, now 20, had argued Bloom "erroneously abused his discretion" when he remarked in his sentencing statement that Martinson "had a choice" when she shot her parents.

The only choice Martinson believed that she had, at the crucial moment, was whether to kill herself or stepfather, the defense argued, citing the long history of abuse inflicted on the teen throughout her childhood. Further, the defense noted that Martinson and the state entered into a plea agreement whereby the state agreed to amend charges of first-degree intentional homicide to second-degree intentional homicide based upon the mitigating circumstance of adequate provocation. Among other things, the adequate provocation defense is premised upon a "complete lack of self-control" on the defendant's part. Given this premise, Martinson argued the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion when it repeatedly stated that Martinson "had a choice" whether to kill the victims.

In a 19-page ruling released Feb. 20, the appeals court rejected Martinson's argument.

"We conclude that pursuant to the plain language of the relevant statutes, when the State stipulates to amend a first-degree intentional homicide charge to a second-degree offense based upon the mitigating circumstance of adequate provocation, it stipulates not to the fact that adequate provocation existed, but rather to its inability to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that facts supporting such a defense did not exist. Moreover, longstanding sentencing law permits a circuit court to reach its own conclusions about a defendant's character based upon the information before it. Because the record here contained information sufficient to support the sentencing court's comments regarding Martinson's volitional capacity to commit the murders, we affirm."

Crucial to the defense argument was a 26-page document that was entered into the court record at Martinson's March 11, 2016 plea hearing.

It was during that hearing that Martinson pled guilty to two counts of second-degree intentional homicide. The document, referred to as "Appendix A" outlined the cycle of sexual, physical, emotional and mental abuse Martinson suffered through for most of her life at the hands of various men in her mother's life.

To bolster this claim, Martinson's trial attorneys Thomas Wilmouth and Amy Lynn Ferguson attempted at sentencing to paint a picture of Thomas Ayers as an abusive man with a history of criminal behavior. They also introduced reports from mental health experts Brad E.R. Smith and Sheryl Dolezal who diagnosed Martinson as suffering from major depressive disorder as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Based on independent examinations of Martinson conducted while she was pursuing a plea of not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect defense, they both concluded she had likely been suffering some level of depression symptoms off and on since about age 8. The symptoms became noticeably more intense at around age 15 when her mother moved in with Thomas Ayers, they said.

While he conceded at sentencing that the facts laid out in "Appendix A" would cause any individual to feel sympathy for Martinson, Bloom found that the abuse did not excuse the fact that two people died at her hands in a brutal manner. "The most important point that needs to be made by way of this proceeding is that yes, the defendant had a choice," he said.

It was that statement that formed the basis for a motion for post-conviction relief filed at the circuit court level in July 2017. Bloom denied the motion that fall, rejecting the defense argument that the facts laid out in "Appendix A" show the teen had "adequate provocation" or provocation that causes a reasonable person to lose normal self-control.

Bloom ruled the applicable statutes do not provide "as a matter of law" that a person found guilty of second-degree intentional homicide on the basis of adequate provocation "is absolved of volitional responsibility for their actions."

"I further conclude that the applicable statutes do not forego, as a matter of law, a court from considering at sentencing that a person found guilty of second-degree intentional homicide on the basis of adequate provocation had a choice" he said.

In analyzing Martinson's argument, the three-judge appeals court determined the key to the case is the concept of burden of proof.

The judges explained that defendants have the initial burden to produce evidence to support a defense of "adequate provocation" however the state also faces a requirement of its own: to disprove that particular defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Once a defendant successfully places an affirmative defense in issue, the State is required to disprove the defense beyond a reasonable doubt," the judges wrote. "Within this burden-shifting framework, it is important to note that this scheme represents only the mitigation of the crime's severity based upon the 'complete lack of self-control.' It is not a complete defense that absolves the defendant of criminal liability."

"It is apparent the effect of the State's stipulation and amendment to the charges in this case was to agree that it could not meet its burden of showing beyond a reasonable doubt that Martinson was not acting under the influence of adequate provocation when she committed the murders," the decision reads. "There is a critical distinction between a concession that the State could not meet its burden of disproving adequate provocation and a concession that adequate provocation existed. Although Martinson argues that the State's stipulation has the latter effect, the statutes unambiguously provide that the stipulation had only the former effect. Accordingly, nothing in the text of (the statutes in question) precludes a circuit court from remarking upon and independently evaluating the defendant's volitional capacity at sentencing in cases of stipulated second-degree intentional homicide based on adequate provocation. Although Martinson was in a sense 'acquitted' of first-degree intentional homicide, the circuit court could nonetheless properly consider the facts underlying the second-degree intentional homicide charge to reach its own conclusions regarding Martinson's culpability for the lesser offense when sentencing her for that crime. As just noted, existing sentencing law permits a circuit court to make its own assessment of the defendant's character using all the accurate factual information available to it. Here, such information would include whether Martinson had the volitional capacity to commit the acts of murder despite the State's stipulation that it could not disprove adequate provocation beyond a reasonable doubt."

Also Monday, the state's highest court declined to hear the appeal of Mark Spietz, a Kaukauna man convicted of entering the Martinson home after the murders and taking property including ATVs, lawn mowers, compound bows and Jennifer Ayers purse.

Following a two-day trial in late August 2016, Spietz was found guilty of three counts of burglary and one count of theft between $5,000 and $10,000. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 18 months probation. Spietz argued at trial that he entered the home and secured property as part of a work order from his employer TruAssets, a Scottsdale, Ariz. company which secures abandoned or foreclosed properties for banks.

Spietz later filed a motion for post-conviction relief arguing that new evidence in the form of a voice mail and call log recently recovered from his cellphone would have demonstrated to the jury that he had tried to get updated instructions on how to proceed in his job securing the property.

Bloom denied the post-conviction motion on the grounds the new information would not have impacted the jury's verdict.

In a nine-page decision released in February, the 3rd District Court of Appeals agreed with Bloom.

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