Todd Kendhammer’s attorneys want the judge who presided over his trial to recuse himself from the case days before he is scheduled to sentence Kendhammer for the 2016 death of his wife.
Madison-based attorneys Stephen Hurley and Jonas Bednarek accuse La Crosse County Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke of bias and argue that he catered to the media during Kendhammer’s December trial.
They want another judge to impose sentence, according to a motion filed Tuesday.
Bjerke must issue a ruling before Kendhammer’s sentencing can move forward on Friday. He faces a life sentence for first-degree intentional homicide, but a judge could find him eligible for release after a minimum 20-year imprisonment.
Kendhammer, 47, early Sept. 16, 2016, fatally beat his wife of 25 years and then tried to conceal the cause of her death by staging a freak car accident. Barbara Kendhammer died the next day.
The West Salem man claimed he was driving north on Hwy. M in the town of Hamilton about 8 a.m. when what he thought was a bird but determined was a pipe rolled from an oncoming flatbed truck. He claimed he lunged forward and punched the window with one or both of his fists trying to deflect the pipe before it impaled the passenger side of his windshield.
Kendhammer said he was driving with his wife to pick up a truck owned in turn by Justin Heim, Ben Pfaff and finally Jarrod Loging to repair a windshield — at the same time his consistently punctual wife was supposed to be at work at West Salem Middle School.
All three men testified during the trial, telling jurors they had no arrangements to meet Kendhammer that day.
A passerby on Bergum Coulee Road, where Kendhammer stopped the car 200 yards from where the pipe was supposed to have hit his car, testified he saw the Toyota Camry in the ditch, its windshield intact, in the minutes before authorities believe Kendhammer took a 10-pound pipe from the trunk and drove it through the windshield.
There was no blood on the ends of the pipe, which struck the exterior of the glass before it broke through, and there was no blood on Barbara’s headrest, according to the State Crime Laboratory. She suffered three bone-deep cuts on the back of her head, among a host of other injuries.
In their motion filed Tuesday, Kendhammer’s attorneys called pre-trial publicity “extensive” and tainted by “bias in favor of guilt,” singling out the Tribune for coverage that could have biased potential jurors. The newspaper published 12 articles on Kendhammer’s case before trial; the newspaper published 36 articles on Eric Koula’s case before his 2012 trial for the deaths of his parents.
Here's a look at the La Crosse Tribune's day-by-day coverage from the Todd Kendhammer homicide trial.
Law enforcement “provided the media” with interviews, crime lab reports, photographs, videos and 911 tapes that the newspaper published “without any critical analysis,” according to the motion by Kendhammer’s lawyers.
The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department and Wisconsin State Patrol released those records under Wisconsin open record law. Defense attorneys declined to respond to repeated Tribune requests for comment before, during and after the trial.
Bjerke accommodated 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 the motion.
The judge, they argued, also 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.
“During trial, the court catered to the needs of the media at the expense of the accused — at the expense of the attorney-client privilege and at the expense of the effective presentation of evidence to the jury,” according to the motion.
Kendhammer’s attorneys will argue at sentencing that he should be eligible for release at the minimum 20 years, citing strong family support, although a pre-sentence investigation recommended no opportunity for release “based on the severity of injuries to Barbara,” according to a brief also filed Tuesday.
Letters submitted to the court by the couple’s children and other family members and supporters shared anecdotes of a family-oriented man known for his kindness.
“I know in my heart that Todd didn’t hurt Barbara,” her mother, Joyce Adams, 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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