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Dennis Lewchuk

Other Nebraska Exonerations
On the evening of December 21, 1979, 33-year-old Dennis Lewchuk and a friend went bar-hopping in Norfolk, Nebraska. While at a tavern called the Brass Rail, Lewchuk encountered James Warner of Alexandria, Louisiana.
 
During conversation, Warner became aware that Lewchuk was affiliated with Joker’s Wild, a motorcycle gang, and began making obnoxious and insulting remarks about members of the gang and questioning their toughness.
 
At some point, Lewchuk left in his car and Warner accompanied him. Lewchuk later said they were going to Lewchuk’s home to see his bar. Warner claimed they were going to smoke marijuana.
 
Their accounts of what happened next differed substantially. Warner said he was sitting in the parked car when Lewchuk, without warning, struck him in the arm. Warner said he swung back, missed and then Lewchuk hit him in the head and began stabbing him with a knife. Warner said he managed to escape, but he was treated for about two dozen stab wounds that required some 500 stitches.
 
Lewchuk claimed that Warner began making disparaging remarks about Joker’s Wild gang members and suddenly delivered a karate chop to Lewchuk’s throat. Warner began choking him until he nearly passed out. Lewchuk said he pulled his knife and stabbed Warner in self-defense until Warner fled the car.
 
Two days later, Lewchuk learned that police were looking for him and he surrendered voluntarily. He was charged with first-degree assault and released on bond.

 
Lewchuk went to trial in Madison County Circuit Court in June 1980 after rejecting a prosecution offer to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge and get six months in jail.
 
Warner gave his account of Lewchuk attacking him without provocation, while Lewchuk testified in his own defense and said he was acting in self-defense.
 
The defense called several witnesses from the tavern who testified that Warner was behaving violently before Lewchuk arrived.
 
Mark Volquardson, a bartender at the Brass Rail, testified that on the night of the stabbing, Warner was “raising hell” in the bar before Lewchuk arrived. The bartender said Warner had shoved a female patron and punched a male patron in the chest.
 
Gary Biggerstaff, a customer in the bar, said Warner repeatedly made obscene comments to him, bragged about his proficiency in karate and attempted to gouge Biggerstaff’s eyes. They went outside the bar and Warner beat him up.
 
B.J. Hoile testified that Warner asked him to step outside the bar and when he did, Warner swung at him, but missed. Hoile said that when he turned to go back inside, Warner grabbed him from behind and tried to gouge his eyes out.
 
Janell Hackler told the jury that Warner shoved her at one point, though not forcefully enough to knock her down. Leonard Haines told the jury that he was in the bar that night and that Warner was acting in a “very vulgar, drunken, disrespectful” manner. Another customer, Richard Bear, testified that Warner tried to start a fight with him and later, after Lewchuk arrived, began making disparaging remarks toward Lewchuk.
 
On June 21, a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict.
 
For the second trial, the prosecution persuaded the judge to move the case to Cuming County, 40 miles west. The prosecution also persuaded the judge to bar Lewchuk’s attorney from calling the bartender and other customers who testified about Warner’s behavior on the night of the incident on the ground that Lewchuk was not aware of Warner’s behavior prior to Lewchuk’s arrival at the bar.
 
Without that testimony, Lewchuk was convicted of first-degree assault on September 30, 1980.
 
On November 6, 1980, Lewchuk failed to appear for sentencing. An arrest warrant was issued, but Lewchuk was not arrested until December 1994 in Mentone, Alabama, where he, his wife and their children had been eking out a low-profile itinerant existence.
 
Lewchuk, under the name of John Wesley, worked as a musician in a couple of bands in Florida and Tennessee before they settled in Alabama where he worked as a flea market vendor. He was arrested by the FBI after a resident of Mentone saw a wanted poster with Lewchuk’s picture in the local post office.
 
At the time, Lewchuk’s wife, Pam, told the news media that after Lewchuk was convicted, “We went home and cried and didn’t know what to do. I think it was a week or two before we had to go back, we decided we were leaving. We know that was wrong, but we thought it was right, then.”

 
Lewchuk was taken back to Madison County. Numerous residents of Mentone, including the mayor, teachers and business owners, wrote letters and signed a petition attesting to Lewchuk’s good behavior and asking for leniency. Two dozen of them rented vans and drove to Nebraska to testify at the sentencing hearing. On Dec. 16, 1994, Lewchuk was sentenced to five to 10 years in prison for the assault conviction. He was also sentenced to a year to be served concurrently after pleading guilty to an escape charge.
 
Lewchuk’s lawyer then filed an appeal of the conviction. In November 1995, the Nebraska Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The appeals court held that the judge had erroneously barred the testimony of the defense witnesses.
 
On April 26, 1996, the prosecution dismissed the charge. Lewchuk, having completed his sentence on the escape conviction, was then released.
 
– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/26/2014
State:Nebraska
County:Madison
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1979
Convicted:1980
Exonerated:1996
Sentence:5 to 10 years
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:33
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No