Death of attorney prompts request to delay 1975 cold case murder trial

Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 5:46 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 28, 2021 at 6:33 PM CDT
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STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Fireworks erupted in a Door County Courtroom between a judge and defense attorney Tuesday while arguing over when to hold a jury trial in a high-profile cold case that dates back to 1975.

Prosecutors charged 85-year old Richard Pierce with the death of his wife, Carol Jean in 2018, but the case has still not gone before a jury.

Action 2 news first told you in April of 2021 that the trial was delayed a full year because of COVID.

It’s currently slated to begin in January of 2022, but now the defense is trying to get it delayed again.

Online court records show Kate Zuidmulder, Richard Pierce’s defense attorney, filed a motion September 21 to adjourn the case after her co-counsel and Pierce’s other attorney, Joseph Kwiatkowski, died in August from cancer.

“At this point, I’m not prepared and would not be effective going forward in January,” Zuidmulder told the court during a motion hearing.

The following exchange between Zuidmulder and Judge David Weber then took place.

Judge: “Why can’t you be prepared, Ms. Zuidmulder? The trial is three months away.”

Zuidmulder: “First of all, I need some help, your honor. I need co-counsel.”

Judge: “That’s fine. Get co-counsel.”

Zuidmulder: “There’s no money.”

The judge said money isn’t an argument to delay a jury trial in a case that’s already seen lengthy delays since being charged out three years ago.

Much of the defense’s argument was based on not having possession of discovery -- what Zuidmulder says is 10,000 pages worth on paper -- that is currently in Michigan where the attorney Kwiatkowski practiced law.

Richard Pierce moved to Michigan shortly after Carol Jean vanished in 1975 and soon after had a new girlfriend, according to prosecutors.

It wasn’t until 2018 that prosecutors felt they had enough evidence to charge Pierce with Carol Jean’s murder.

The 85-year old Pierce is again living in Michigan, out on bond after medical issues, and had relied on both Zuidmulder in Wisconsin and Kwiatkowski in Michigan to represent him.

“I still don’t understand why you can’t get the discovery right now. I’m a little bit mystified as to why you don’t have the discovery,” said Judge Weber.

Zuidmulder told the court she couldn’t drive six hours during a pandemic, with visitor restrictions, to get the discovery. She also told the court she had planned to take care of many pre-trial issues in the case, while her co-counsel had planned to handle more of the trial duties.

The judge argued signing on as an attorney didn’t allow picking and choosing representation.

“Your honor, with all due respect, I take offense to your suggestion that I’ve shirked my role in this case,” Zuidmulder told the court.

“I’m not trying to offend you,” said the judge. “What I am saying is I’ve got to balance many different interests here.”

That includes the rights of both Pierce and any potential victims, he explained, before allowing Carol Jean’s family members to make statements.

“The emotional and psychological beating that I take that is real every day, 365 days a year, it tears at my heart, my gut and my entire being,” Brian Fillion, Carol Jean’s brother told the court.

“These other outlying issues are not our problem,” said Carol Jean’s son, Mark Clark. “This thing needs to go forward and get resolved. Please.”

The judge argued both defense attorneys had been very involved in the case all along, and with three months still to go, said he believed supreme court rules in keeping the case on the docket for January were not being violated.

Another exchange between the judge and defense continued:

Zuidmulder: “I cannot be prepared for a trial in January.”

Judge (interrupting): “Why not? You haven’t answered the question.”

Zuidmulder: “I don’t have the resources.”

Judge: “Ms. Zuidmulder, you have not answered the question, why not?”

Zuidmulder: “Because I don’t have the resources.”

Judge: “What does that mean?”

Zuidmulder: “I’ve repeatedly said I don’t have the discovery. I haven’t had it for two years.”

Judge Weber eventually denied the motion to adjourn, keeping the trial scheduled to begin January 4, 2022.

The defense hinted it may file an appeal to stop that.

Action 2 News will continue to follow the case closely and provide updates as we learn them.

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