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Court of Appeals upholds Tuchek conviction

Fri, Aug 29th, 2003
Posted in Features

On Tuesday, August 26, the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the Fillmore County District Court’s conviction of former Lanesboro Police Chief John Tuchek for the April 2002 “hero fire” that destroyed three historic buildings in downtown Lanesboro. During Tuchek’s trial the defense rested without calling any witnesses, arguing that the state had failed to prove their case. At the time, defense attorney Mark Kurzman told the court that Tuchek was guilty of a lesser charge, fifth-degree arson, rather than the first degree charges where intent must be proven. Fifth degree arson carries a sentence of 90 days in jail.The defense maintained at the time that Tuchek started cardboard on a trailer on fire, not cardboard close to the building.In October of 2002, the defense filed a motion for a new trial which was later denied. At that time Kurzman argued that the court had turned down the defense’s request to call a witness who claims to be able to back up Tuchek’s story that the fire started on a trailer.In their brief to the Appeals Court, the defense maintained that there was insufficient evidence to convict Tuchek of first degree arson and that Tuchek was deprived of due process when the witness was not allowed to testify. Kurzman sought to have the Court of Appeals reduce Tuchek’s sentence to the lesser charge of fifth degree arson; and if not, to reduce the existing sentence by 1/3 to four years in prison.The Court of Appeals found that the “evidence was sufficient” to support Tuchek’s conviction of first-degree arson.” The court said that this evidence included conversations Tuchek had with his ex-girlfriend, fire marshall evidence that an accelerant was used to start the fire, and chemist findings of traces of fuel oil in the fire residue. The court remarked that Tuchek, himself, admitted to starting the fire.While the upper court found that the district court erred in refusing to allow Tuchek to call a witness who could have supported Tuchek’s claim that the fire started on a trailer, the court found that this error was not prejudicial to the defense.The court said the witness’ own testimony was contradictory to Tuchek’s own statements to investigators. The court said it was satisfied that had the testimony been admitted, a reasonable jury would have reached the same verdict.The Court of Appeals also upheld the court’s sentencing of Tuchek to 72 months in prison, an upward departure from the 48 month presumptive term. The court agreed with the District Court’s view that Tuchek violated his position of trust as a police officer, the vulnerability of many of the victims, and that the fire was started at night when occupants would be sleeping, were aggravating factors in an upward sentencing departure. Tuchek is presently serving his sentence at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Faribault.

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