The judge who presided over Todd Kendhammer’s trial for the 2016 murder of his wife will not recuse himself from the case and will impose sentence during a hearing Friday.
Defense attorneys Stephen Hurley and Jonas Bednarek wanted La Crosse County Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke to remove himself from the case, arguing that he is biased and catered to the media during Kendhammer’s December trial.
“The motion makes unsupported claims that the court placed the interests of the local media ahead of the defendant’s right to a fair trial and effective assistance of counsel,” Bjerke wrote in his decision issued Thursday. “Given the lack of any articulable reason in support of the defendant’s assertions, the court hereby denies the defendant’s motion for recusal of trial judge.”
Kendhammer, 47, of West Salem fatally beat his wife, Barbara, early Sept. 16, 2016, and then tried to cover up her murder by staging a traffic crash in the town of Hamilton. She died the next day.
In their motion, Kendhammer’s attorneys called pre-trial publicity “extensive” and “heavily invested in portraying Mr. Kendhammer as guilty.”
They accused Bjerke of accommodating to the media at Kendhammer’s trial by asking attorneys to speak into stationary microphones so reporters could hear proceedings and when he had a podium positioned in a “cattle chute-like configuration” for closing arguments to benefit television cameras, according to their motion.
The judge, they also argued, had Kendhammer move his late wife’s water jug from the railing of the witness stand during his testimony after he received a note the attorneys assumed came from reporters.
The volume of pre-trial publicity did not influence the judge’s handling of the case, and the defense motion is “another desperate attempt by Mr. Kendhammer to place blame on someone else (the media) instead of taking responsibility for his actions,” La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke wrote in a response to the motion.
Judges routinely direct attorneys speak into microphones, the podium configuration didn’t prevent attorneys from presenting closing arguments, and the note referenced by Kendhammer’s attorneys came from a juror, Gruenke stated.
Bjerke required attorneys to use microphones so that those in the courtroom and others listening to the trial online could hear the parties, he wrote in his ruling.
“During this particular trial, the court was constantly receiving reports, both during the trial and during breaks, that people were not able to hear counsel when they were away from the microphones,” Bjerke stated. “These complaints came from people in the back of the courtroom, bailiffs on behalf of the jurors, and people viewing the trial through live streaming.”
Bjerke positioned the podium so that he could see jurors and had the water jug moved after a juror reported being unable to see Kendhammer during his testimony.
“The defendant’s claims regarding the manner in which the court conducted the trial fail to warrant that this court recuse itself from further proceedings in this case,” Bjerke wrote.
Anne Jungen covers law enforcement and the criminal justice system in La Crosse County. She joined the Tribune reporting staff in December 2005. You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 608-791-8224.
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