A Special Thanksgiving Reflection
by Joan Treppa
Editor's Note: This article first ran in November of 2015. Joan has added an update to the process in her continuing passion: to seek transformational justice for the men she is convinced who have been wrongfully convicted. - DDM
Thanksgiving is a magnificent backdrop for sharing our most precious moments. The holiday celebrates gratitude and the traditions date back many generations. This often includes remembering lost loved ones and taking comfort in knowing that they are now safe and at peace. However, some absences are not comforting or even acceptable. The empty chair at the Thanksgiving table reminds family members that the person is still alive, but trapped in a cage.
What I am talking about is the trauma of a false or wrongful conviction, meaning that a loved one was sent to prison for a crime they did not commit.
Wrongful convictions isolate the families left behind, mostly from their communities, but also from unsympathetic friends. They are abandoned, all while the rest of the family must deal with the absence of the convicted. An agonizing emptiness overshadows what should be joyous occasions like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Six years ago, I read the story of six, falsely-accused men. It changed my life. Before long, I became an advocate by involving myself in this specific wrongful conviction case. I now passionately write about that ongoing trauma and I cover other related topics. But how I was initially drawn to it did not happen overnight. In fact, it took a lifetime.
As a child, I felt I had no voice. I was often bullied at school. Many days, three or four girls gathered around me between class to point at my ragged clothes. They commented loudly on how funny and old looking they were. They laughed at me. They said nasty things like, “Cat got your tongue?” when I didn’t respond. One time, when all the students lined up to go outside for recess, the tallest girl shoved the students in the back of the line to cause a chaotic chain reaction. Then she told the teacher it was my fault. I froze, unable to defend myself.
No one taught me to fight back. It was easier to take the abuse in silence. I let my accusers have their say so they would leave me alone. And I would tremble and weep when they were not looking. No amount of humiliation compelled me to speak up and the abuse continued for years. The nuns were strict, but oblivious to my struggle. I never said a word to anyone in authority, because I feared they would label me as weak.
The situation at home was not much better. I grew up in a large family with fifteen siblings and our parents were too distracted to give us individualized attention. They never taught us to confide in or look to each other for support. Instead, we knew the expectations—to be independently strong and self-sufficient. In my quest to please my parents, I said nothing of the bullying at school. I struggled with debilitating thoughts of feeling left out, lost and forgotten.
As I matured, better opportunities appeared and my circumstances changed drastically. There were definite higher powers at work guiding me out of the darkness and I was able to let the anguish of my past slip away.
In 2009, I was forced to revisit my pain. I received a book, The Monfils Conspiracy. The book spelled out an incident from 1992 in Green Bay, Wisconsin at a paper mill in which six men were convicted in the death of a co-worker. They were sentenced to life in prison. The authors argued that the six men are actually innocent. These men are sons to their mothers. They are fathers to their children. They loved and provided for their families the same as everyone else . . . before they became victims of this injustice. Law enforcement officials labeled them “union thugs” and “murderers” and news outlets persistently referred to them as “The Monfils Six.”
The book had lots of facts—mind numbing facts. But the details supporting the theory of their innocence was more than plausible and frankly, quite upsetting to me. The authors said the victim (the one killed) was emotionally unstable and the mill workers were threatened with their jobs if they did not support the murder theory. The list went on. Aside from the idea that these men could be innocent, what triggered my interest was the presence of an obvious and more troublesome emotional aspect of this case.
It represented a bullying campaign. A witch hunt.
It was similar to what I had experienced as a child. The only difference was that this was an extreme situation, out in the open, and the humiliation for those accused destroyed their lives. I could not simply dismiss the emotional trauma dumped on them. I had no choice but to step in.
It was not easy to face my past heartaches. However, I stood in a better place to deal with my own baggage, so I was able to mold my painful past into an effective tool to help others. Standing beside the accused men’s families, I became a voice that they no longer had; I was giving them real hope that their loved ones can and will return home. The added surprise was that I was nurturing a peaceful, spiritual center within my own life.
Together, we faced impossible odds, but we found legal assistance. We were champions and nothing was beyond the scope of what we could accomplish. There was renewed hope and a real possibility that these men might actually be freed. As it stands, there are many battles yet to be fought and won, but these men (and their families) understand that they no longer have to face them alone.
I want to make a difference. It nourishes my soul to help others. I have discovered that giving hope to others—and never giving up that hope—has transformed me. I am thankful for every day I can speak on behalf of the innocent and falsely incarcerated. I feel I am becoming more whole again.
Thanksgiving is a time of reflection—for me, I want to reflect on the pain that other people have to endure. I am reminded that humanity is one, and that the pain they still feel, continues to burn in my heart. The pain urges me to keep sharing their story. I want to see them free, reunited with their families.
Although we cannot always reach out to help others, there is one thing we can do: if we refrain from prejudging before we have all of the facts, we will succeed in obliterating the precise cause of wrongful convictions—when we see the wrongfully convicted as human beings first, they no longer are the enemy, animals to be locked up.
In the winter of 2014, my husband and I started to visit each of the five men. I learned they are exactly as the authors described them and we consider them to be close, lifelong friends. Besides that, they have grown extremely thankful for my voice for them.
And so I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving! I conclude by passing on to you the hopeful words of Margaret Mead:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
An Update from joan:
As another year passes, I acknowledge the many challenges, disappointments and victories that have inundated this life I am blessed with. Ever present is the consideration for inescapable tribulations these men and their families continue to face. However, what I consider a silver lining is the emotional transformation that has occurred within them over time. An indefinite uncertainty of years past of whether or not heroes would arrive on the scene to offer the necessary legal help has become a long-term assurance that the assistance which did surface is here to stay.
Sadly, a common occurrence for these weary souls also surfaced in January of 2016. A significant but expected disappointment thwarted hopes of an impending and more desired resolution to this case. Despite overwhelming evidence that these six men are innocent, a motion for a new trial for one of them was denied on the circuit court level. But shortly thereafter, a motion for the same was filed at the next level; the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. That appeal is currently pending. But resilience and persistence remains steady for those who anxiously await that decision. Support continues to grow and every last one of us takes comfort in knowing that this process will continue until the desired results are achieved or all prospects have been exhausted. Truly, something we all remain thankful for.
*Editors Note: For detailed information about the Monfils Case, see this site located here. Please note that the website has videos that autoplay and it takes some time for the site to load properly.
About the Author
Joan Treppa is a wife and mother who resides in Blaine, Minnesota. As a citizen advocate devoted to fighting wrongful convictions, Joan focuses her efforts by helping family members of the wrongfully accused deal with the devastating effects and aftermath of a wrongful conviction. Joan is currently writing a book about her experiences. For more information, please visit her website.