Prosecution included questionable witnesses, racial stereotypes, in Dale Chu arson trial in 2000

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But that’s not what happened.

“Most adults know their Social Security number by heart. I know my Department of Corrections number…4-0-1-9-7-3,” says Chu, who is now in her 40s.

A joint investigation by Wisconsin Watch and WPR uncovered questionable behavior in Chu’s case and six other lawsuits by Biskupic during the 1990s and 2000s. The investigation also investigated a case handled by Biskupic and disgraced the former Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus, Biskupic’s first boss.

The impact of those lawsuits continues to reverberate on defendants like Chu — and others who remain behind bars more than 20 years later.

Wisconsin Watch and WPR sent registered letters with lists of questions and left phone messages and emails for Biskupic, who is now an Outagamie County circuit judge, and his attorney. They didn’t answer. Paulus did not respond to efforts to reach him by phone, email and certified letter with lists of questions.

The Chu family builds a successful business

Chu’s parents emigrated from South Korea and they opened a dry cleaning business in Appleton, Fox Valley, northeast Wisconsin. In the 1990s, Appleton was very white. It’s always like that.

“My brother and sister and I were like the only Korean family,” Chu says. “So we didn’t really fit in racially. We didn’t fit in with anybody.”

By the mid-1990s, Chus activity had grown. They had a central store near downtown Appleton with dry cleaning supplies and a handful of satellite locations for drop-off and pick-up.

Chu and his two siblings helped with the business. Although they worked together, Chu says he and his parents weren’t close. They rarely ate together as a family, and weeks went by without him seeing his father, who was “always working”.

He remembers one time when his father got angry with him. It was a friend, Nick Wales. Chu got a job in Wales working in dry cleaners – and even covered it up when he stole a pair of Tommy Hilfiger jeans. But this friendship would later deteriorate considerably.

Chu claimed he gave the jeans to Wales.

“And my parents were like, ‘Why would you do that for someone?’ And I remember my dad said to me, “I want you to remember something, son. You have black hair, brown eyes, you are different from the others.”

Fire leads to charges

On January 4, 1998, the Chu’s main Appleton dry cleaning business was destroyed by fire. This is the fire that Biskupic accused Dale Chu of starting.

Chu and his brother, cousin and a few friends had spent the afternoon working at the main dry cleaning shop, moving things from room to room because they said Chu’s dad was planning to repaint. When they finished, they went home. But soon after, the young men returned in Chu’s little blue 1986 Chevy Spectrum. Ironically, this part of the story begins with a fire extinguisher.

The expired fire extinguisher was at one of the satellite locations. Chu’s father had asked him to replace him. Chu and his friends returned to the main location to retrieve a new fire extinguisher. They took it from a delivery van and say they never entered the building.

Chu and his friends then returned to the main store to drop off the expired fire extinguisher – and saw the brick building surrounded by fire trucks.

“My parents really couldn’t support their family at this point,” Chu recalled. “We had an eviction notice on our house. We had to pack up and go from there. They lost their business. They lost everything.”

Two years later, Chu was arrested – for arson.

“And I’m like, arson for what? Arson for where?”

Investigators could not trace the source of the fire to anything accidental – such as faulty wiring – – so they concluded it was arson. This ancient practice in fire investigation is known as “corpus negative”. It’s a bit like saying, “We can’t figure out how this guy died. So it must be murder.

A decade after Chu’s conviction, the National Fire Protection Association rejected this approach outright, saying it was “not in accordance with the scientific method”.

Prosecutors exercise plea power

The standard of conviction is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But the standard for fillers is much lower.

This gives prosecutors a lot of leverage. A person facing five counts and 50 years if found guilty at trial could agree to plead guilty to one count and just 10 years.

“But you can see how even an innocent person would agree to this deal, because going to court is risky business,” says Angela J. Davis, a law professor at American University. “And so we have a plea system. We have a system where 95 to 98 percent of all criminal cases are resolved by way of a guilty plea.”

Prosecutors are doing all of this – charging, not charging – with little oversight. Davis and others describe this process as a “black box”.

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