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Friday, February 09, 2007

Expert doubts his murder ruling in Green Bay arson case

This article appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on January, 22, 2007:

Expert doubts his murder ruling in Green Bay arson case

DEE J. HALL
dhall@madison.com

The former Brown County medical examiner who ruled that a Green Bay woman was murdered in her burned home is now formally questioning his own ruling, saying two agents of the state Division of Criminal Investigation "may have misrepresented" evidence in the case.

Dr. Gregory Schmunk said in a sworn statement signed late last year that former DCI arson investigator Greg Eggum and current agent Kim Skorlinski may have withheld key evidence from him, raising doubts about his finding that Sandra Maloney's death was murder.

The state Department of Justice wouldn't comment on the allegations in the affidavit.

Schmunk signed the affidavit in an effort to help family members and others trying to free former Green Bay Police Officer John Maloney. Maloney is serving a life term for murder, arson and mutilating a corpse in the Feb. 11, 1998, death of his estranged wife. Maloney has maintained his innocence. He and the couple's three children say they believe the evidence points to an accidental death.

Maloney and his supporters have made a half-dozen attempts to reverse his conviction on various grounds. Most recently, the state Supreme Court in October refused a request by Milwaukee investigative consultant Ira Robins to initiate an investigation into alleged "forensic fraud" by Eggum. Schmunk's affidavit was signed Nov. 2, after the Supreme Court decision.

No confidence

Schmunk said he relied in part on Eggum's arson finding when he reached the conclusion that Sandra Maloney was murdered. In early 2004, Schmunk told the Wisconsin State Journal that he no longer had confidence in his opinion that the victim was murdered because of the evidence that had been withheld from him by the special prosecutor, former Winnebago County District Attorney Joseph Paulus, now serving a federal prison term for bribery.

Schmunk's affidavit, obtained by Robins, contains more detailed information about the extent to which he contends state investigators kept evidence from him. Robins said he hopes Schmunk's statement will spark a new investigation into the former Madison woman's death.

Schmunk left Green Bay in 1999 and now is the medical examiner for Polk County, Iowa, which includes Des Moines. He said in his affidavit that Eggum and Skorlinski failed to turn over the following information:

An initial opinion by the Brown County Arson Task Force that the 1998 fire was accidentally caused by Sandra Maloney's careless smoking.

Documentation for two tests that Eggum cited to support his finding that the fire was set.
"Suicide notes written by Ms. Maloney . . . found in a wastebasket in her residence."
Said Robins: "How can you not disclose to the medical examiner that there were suicide notes in there? It just shocks the conscience."

In an interview, Schmunk said he ruled the death "homicidal in nature" based on a finding of "probable manual strangulation" by Milwaukee County Assistant Medical Examiner John Teggatz, who conducted the autopsy, and Eggum's ruling that the fire was intentionally set. But Schmunk said in his sworn statement that because of "relevant information that may have been withheld and/or misrepresented by Agents Skorlinski and Eggum," the cause and manner of death "may need to be revised to . . . undetermined."

In his request to the Supreme Court for an investigation, Robins contended the results Eggum claimed to obtain in two tests are "scientifically impossible." He pointed to tests conducted by Alabama arson expert James Munger patterned after the tests Eggum described in the Maloney prosecution whose results contradict Eggum's.

A video of one of Munger's tests showed that melted polyurethane couch cushions poured onto the floor when ignited - contradicting Eggum's testimony in the Maloney trial that the cushions don't "run" when burned. (Click here for the test video.)

John Lentini, an arson expert who has been following the Maloney case for several years, said in his experience, "polyurethane can and does run." Eggum had testified that couch cushions don't run when burned and could not be used to explain the deep burn patterns around the couch.
Lentini runs Scientific Fire Analysis in Big Pine Key, Fla., and is the author of the book, "Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation," described as "a critical assessment of common fire investigation errors with a discussion of how these errors affect real cases." Neither he nor Munger has been paid to examine the Maloney case. Lentini has been a consultant on a controversial 1989 arson case in Pennsylvania.

Vodka tests

At trial, Eggum testified that he believed Maloney set fire to Sandra Maloney's living room by pouring vodka on the floor. He cited char patterns on the floor near the couch as evidence that an accelerant was used to set the fire, and he theorized that 80-proof vodka from bottles at the scene was the source.

But Munger's tests showed that the vodka quickly put itself out without scorching the carpet because, said Munger, "it's 60 percent water." In an interview, Munger said he repeatedly reignited the vodka on the carpet to see if it would burn, but it always put itself out without marking the carpet.

Lentini agreed with Munger's conclusion, adding, "Vodka does not work as an accelerant because it contains too much water."

Department of Justice spokesman Michael Bauer wouldn't address the allegations, say whether the department had investigated them or provide documentation of the tests Eggum claims to have done. Eggum, who is retired, didn't respond to a phone message or a certified letter sent to his Germantown home.

"The Wisconsin Department of Justice litigates its cases in courtrooms, not newspapers," Bauer said in a written statement. "If Mr. Maloney believes these allegations will support a request for a new trial, then he is free to pursue that avenue of relief. We will respond in the course of that litigation, not before."

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