Love endures wrongful conviction

2010-04-02T08:00:00Z 2011-11-10T18:42:53Z Love endures wrongful convictionDEE J. HALL | dhall@madison.com | 608-252-6132 madison.com
April 02, 2010 8:00 am  • 

The wedding invitation for Forest "Woody" Shomberg and April Anello reads, "Love: 1 Injustice: 0."

When the two are married on June 5, it will be the culmination of years of waiting for the Madison couple, who were separated for six of the eight years since they met by Shomberg's imprisonment for a sexual assault a judge determined he didn't commit.

Shomberg, 46, was released in November on the strength of DNA evidence indicating he had nothing to do with the incident on March 8, 2002, in which a UW-Madison student was pulled from State Street and violently groped. Shomberg, whose account that he was celebrating his birthday a few miles away at the time was corroborated by Anello and other friends, was the victim of mistaken identity, the judge found.

"As angry as I get sometimes about the time lost, I'm still extremely grateful to be just where I'm at," he said in an interview at the East Side apartment he and Anello, 28, share with two cats.

"Woody and April have been through a six-year test that would break most relationships, yet theirs has endured and deepened," said Sheila Berry of the Virginia-based Truth in Justice, who advised Shomberg during the lengthy battle to clear his name. "I expect them to have a long, satisfying marriage. I'm so happy for both of them."

A relationship on hold

When the two met, Shomberg had amassed a lengthy criminal record for drug dealing, car theft, weapons possession and other crimes. Anello, despite a 3.9 grade-point average in high school, had skipped college and was working as a waitress. "It was love at first drunken sight," Anello joked.

When he wasn't in jail, Shomberg lived with Anello. Soon after they met, he asked her to marry him.

Those plans were smashed in 2002 when Shomberg was arrested and charged with the assault based on a police sketch that resembled him. His unsuccessful appeals went all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

On Nov. 13, Dane County Circuit Judge Patrick Fiedler, who sentenced Shomberg to 12 years in prison, set him free after the Wisconsin Innocence Project presented DNA and other evidence that raised doubt about his guilt.

"Any anger and resentment we have is overshadowed by the happiness we have together and the wonderful thing the Innocence Project did for us," Anello said, referring to attorney Byron Lichstein and the University of Wisconsin Law School students who helped win Shomberg's release.

Anello said she stuck by Shomberg throughout the ordeal because "I knew he didn't do the crime he was convicted of.

"Maybe it would have been better for us if we forgot about each other, if we moved on. We both tried. But it didn't work," she said, glancing at Shomberg, "did it?"

After overcoming a rough patch while Shomberg was in prison, Anello enrolled in college. In May, she'll graduate from UW-Madison with degrees in French and Slavic studies.

Shomberg, who has kicked what once was a $100-a-day heroin habit, also plans to return to college to finish a degree he started nearly 30 years ago at Madison Area Technical College.

Still haunted by prison

Some things can't be put back the way they were. Anello said the child-like impulsiveness that got Shomberg into so much trouble - but which made him so endearing - "got burned away" during his time in prison. "He goes about things a lot more carefully now," she said.

And although the prison bars are gone, Shomberg said he still feels edgy and trapped, like a man with "a target on my back." His wrongful conviction has left him fearful he'll be picked up again for something he didn't do.

The Dane County District Attorney's Office sought to have Shomberg placed on probation for a previous conviction, but Fiedler ruled he no longer owed the state any time.

After the wedding, Shomberg and Anello say, they plan to move away from Madison, where there are too many bad memories. They might head to San Francisco, where Shomberg lived for seven years. They'd like to start a family.

"Life is extremely short," Shomberg said. "With the time I have left, I want to make the best of it. I want to give back to the people who have stood by me over the years."

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