By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — When Joel Munt went to trial for murdering his ex-wife in front of their young children, he made the rare move of taking the stand to testify on his own behalf.
The trial ended with guilty verdicts that sent him to prison without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder. Now that the case is moving toward its automatic review by the Minnesota Supreme Court, Munt has made another unusual move of filing his own 90-page brief explaining why he believes he was wrongly convicted by a Blue Earth County jury.
An appeals court attorney, appointed by the state, has also filed a brief. It said Munt should receive a new trial because District Court Judge Kurt Johnson didn’t allow one of Munt’s children to testify, allowed a biased juror to hear the case, was not an impartial judge and didn’t allow Munt to testify about child seats found in his vehicle.
Munt, 36, was arrested March 28, 2010, after he shot his ex-wife, 32-year-old Svetlana Munt, several times in Rasmussen Woods. He had used his SUV to ram Svetlana’s car, which had their three children inside, and pin it against a tree. Munt then took the children out of the car, robbed another vehicle at gunpoint and attempted to flee. A Blue Earth County deputy stopped Munt and arrested him just south of Mankato.
Munt said he didn’t plan the murder. He said he lost control after seeing Svetlana with the children, before his scheduled visit, because she had been abusing them. Munt wanted his oldest child to testify about the abuse at his trial, but Johnson had ruled during an earlier hearing that the girl wasn’t competent. She had refused to even enter the courthouse for the hearing, telling a social worker she was afraid of the judge and all men.
Munt’s attorney, Richard Schmitz, argued that the girl should have been required to testify anyway. Witnesses don’t have the right to refuse testimony for a criminal trial, he said.
“That information was critical to corroborate (Munt’s) testimony regarding the history of physical abuse by (Svetlana), which was a crucial component to his defense that he did not kill his ex-wife with intent and premeditation,” Schmitz said.
John Galus, the assistant attorney general handling the appeal, disagreed. He said the girl was refusing to testify due to emotional and psychological problems, which is “one of the hallmarks of incompetency.”
“Certainly nothing in the record suggests that Svetlana was abusing (the girl) on the morning of March 28, 2010, when (Munt) rammed his SUV into her car, shot her to death and kidnapped their three children,” Galus said in his brief.
The juror that Schmitz claims was biased was allowed to serve on the jury after she said she would hold someone responsible for a crime even if that person was mentally ill. One of Munt’s defenses was that he wasn’t guilty due to mental illness. When Munt testified, he said he felt like he had left his body and watched as “It” killed Svetlana.
Munt’s attorneys had already passed the juror, but attempted to have her removed after she made the comment during questioning by prosecutors. Johnson refused, saying he wasn’t going “backwards.”
Galus said the juror
wasn’t biased because she later told Johnson she would be able to follow his legal instructions.
Two comments Johnson made during his instructions to jurors before they began deliberations are the reason Schmitz is claiming he was biased. The first comment, where Johnson told the jurors the trial would move to a second phase if Munt was found guilty, came before closing arguments.
The second comment was made after closing arguments when Johnson dismissed two alternate jurors. He told them they would not participate in deliberations and would not be required to return for the second phase of the trial.
“These comments strongly suggested to the jury that the judge considered their deliberations to be a formality in the process,” Schmitz said.
“According to the trial judge, (Munt) was guilty before deliberations even began.”
Galus’ response said Johnson’s comments were courteous, not biased. He was simply providing jurors with information they would need “to plan a resumption of their personal lives,” Galus said.
Schmitz’s remaining argument for a new trial said Munt should have been allowed to testify after his attorneys rested their case. Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott called a single witness during his rebuttal and asked that witness to show jurors a picture of child seats in Munt’s SUV. In his closing arguments, McDermott said the seats were evidence that Munt planned to kill his wife and take the children.
After the witness’ testimony, Munt’s attorneys asked Johnson to allow Munt to take the stand again. They wanted him to tell the jury that he had the seats in the car because he couldn’t bring himself to remove them. That would have shown that he was giving up an effort to get custody of the children. Johnson denied the request.
Munt’s explanation wouldn’t have swayed the jury, Galus said. The facts that Svetlana’s car was rammed and pinned against a tree, she was shot several times in the head and that Munt took the children and left instead of calling for help were enough to show premeditation, he said.
Munt’s attorneys also were aware of the photos and could have explained them during the trial, Galus said.
Galus only responded to a portion of Munt’s own brief, which claimed that several jurors were biased because they knew people involved with the case. Most of Munt’s brief had no legal standing, Galus said.
Much of Munt’s handwritten brief talks about a judicial system that he believes took his children for no reason. It’s similar to writings he posted on a website before the murder.
“The system has consistently violated my rights,” Munt said on the last page of his filing. “The trial was a farce, with a jury that would have given the prosecutor anything he asked for. Then I was sent to prison while my children remained in the clutches of the system that had done them such wrong.”
A date has not been set for oral arguments before the Supreme Court.