DARLINGTON — Despite possible new evidence and the erratic behavior of a key witness, a judge is unlikely to allow an Argyle man to withdraw guilty pleas in a house fire that killed his three nephews, according to a legal expert.
Instead, 19-year-old Jeremy Wand’s hopes of taking his case to trial probably rest on whether the judge in the case believes Wand’s pleas were entered correctly, if he understood what rights he was giving up and whether he gave them up voluntarily, said Cecelia Klingele, a UW-Madison assistant law professor who specializes in criminal law and procedure.
“If the answers are yes, ordinarily the pleas will not be withdrawn,” Klingele said.
Green County Circuit Judge Thomas Vale will tell Wand Thursday morning in a Lafayette County courtroom whether he can withdraw his guilty pleas to three counts of first-degree intentional homicide and three other felonies for helping his older brother start the fire last September in a rented house in Argyle.
His brother, Armin Wand III, 33, accepted a similar plea deal earlier this year and is serving three life terms with no hope of parole at a state prison in Boscobel for murdering his sons, Allen, 7; Jeffery, 5; and Joseph, 3, so he could collect on their life insurance policies.
If the younger Wand’s pleas aren’t withdrawn, he will be sentenced Thursday afternoon to life in prison. Vale will then decide whether Wand will serve three life terms concurrently, with a chance of parole, or consecutively with no hope of parole.
Questions about boys’ mother
If the pleas are allowed to be withdrawn, a trial would be scheduled and Wand’s defense team could attack the prosecution’s top witness — the dead children’s mother, Sharon Wand, who has developed credibility problems since Wand made his pleas.
Wand’s attorney Frank Medina said Sharon Wand’s recent misdemeanor theft and criminal trespass charges and inconsistent stories about what happened at the fire played roles in the decision to seek to withdraw the pleas last month.
In a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal purportedly sent on her behalf, Sharon Wand, who was badly burned in the fire, recanted her statement to investigators that her husband, Armin, and Jeremy set the fire that killed her children.
Medina also said Jeremy Wand found new evidence he thought could help him gain an acquittal.
But Klingele said a reassessment of the evidence isn’t enough for a plea withdrawal.
“Fundamentally, at a plea withdrawal hearing, the question isn’t, ‘Does the defendant now have a better case than he did at the time the pleas were entered?’ It’s, ‘Did the defendant understand what he was doing when he admitted to committing the crime?’ ” Klingele said.
Plea withdrawals are allowed when judges believe a defendant failed to grasp the major implications of the decision or failed to make the decision voluntarily because of a medical or other condition, Klingele said.
Vale questioned Wand at length about whether he understood the consequences of forgoing a trial and pleading guilty to the six felony charges in a Lafayette County courtroom on June 12. Before convicting Wand, the judge ordered a four-hour recess so Wand could spend extra time thinking about his decision.
Wand told Vale he agreed to the plea arrangement because he thought it would mean he’d spend less time in prison and that he could “get a second chance and to start to be able to have a family some day.”
After Vale said the plea agreement did not guarantee a more lenient sentence, Wand still said he wanted to plead guilty.
“That’s what you want,” Klingele said. “Normally, judges do very careful question-and-answer sessions with the defendants. Sometimes they miss something but, in a case with a triple homicide where the stakes are very high, the judge is going to be very careful.”
Vale appeared perturbed when Wand told the judge at his scheduled sentencing hearing on July 19 that he felt pressured by his attorney, Miguel Michel, into agreeing to a plea deal.
“I do what people want, to make people happy, instead of doing what is best,” Wand told Vale.
Wand has a problem comprehending what he’s hearing, Medina said after that hearing.
“Every step of the way we have to explain things very clearly,” Medina said.
Seeking ‘fresh start’
The criminal complaint alleges Jeremy Wand, at the direction of his brother, locked two of his nephews, Allen and Jeffery, in their rooms after setting the fire in the rented house located on the edge of the Argyle village limits around 3 a.m. on Sept. 7.
It said Armin indicated the main reason he wanted to kill his family was that he wanted to collect on their life insurance policies and make a “fresh start.” He told Jeremy he’d give him $300 for his help.
The brothers tried multiple times to start the carpet on fire as Sharon Wand slept on a futon in the living room, Joseph slept on a couch in the living room, Allen and Jeffery slept in one bedroom and 2-year-old Jessica, the lone sibling to survive, slept in a second bedroom, the complaint said.
Sharon woke up on fire but still managed to carry Jessica out of the burning house, the criminal complaint said. She handed Jessica to her husband, who was seen trying to put her back in the fire, the complaint added.
But she couldn’t save her boys. The bodies of Allen and Jeffery were found together, face down on the floor with the bedroom door closed and locked from the outside. Joseph’s body was found near the couch where he had been sleeping.
Sharon Wand watched him die as she desperately tried to break a window so she could save him, according to her sister, Amy Peterson.
Letters refute testimony
After suffering third-degree burns over 70 percent of her body, Sharon eventually was moved to a medical facility in Dodgeville earlier this year. She was taken from there to another facility in Platteville a few months later after police said she stole items from residents at the Dodgeville facility.
Sharon was granted a divorce on Aug. 8 from Armin by Lafayette County Circuit Judge William Johnston, but not before a flurry of activity by Armin’s family to stop it.
Armin Wand sent copies of letters to Johnston and the State Journal that were addressed to him and appeared to be from his wife.
One of them, which was signed “Sharon Wand,” claimed she didn’t want to divorce him and that he and Jeremy didn’t do anything wrong and should be freed.
Another letter purportedly from Sharon included several professions of love for Armin and different versions of what happened the night of the fire than what Sharon told police.
Law enforcement authorities declined comment when asked if they think the letters were actually from Sharon.
Sharon also made several comments on her Facebook page while she was staying with Armin’s sister, Tammy Wand, that recanted her story implicating Armin and Jeremy and professed her love for her husband.
The divorce granted Sharon sole custody of Jessica, who remains in foster care, according to court documents.