A Wisconsin judge dismissed homicide charges against Minneapolis firefighter Kyle Huggett because law enforcement authorities failed to preserve voice-mail messages that would have helped determine whether he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot an intruder.
Burnett County Circuit Judge James Babbitt ruled that sheriff's detectives denied Huggett due process when they failed to thoroughly listen to and transcribe threatening messages left by John Peach, who broke into Huggett's home in rural Danbury, Wis., last year.
"It is hard to imagine any evidence more compelling than threats from the decedent that the defendant heard approximately two hours before the decedent is breaking into the defendant's residence," Babbitt wrote in his ruling Friday.
Babbitt described the voice-mail messages as "the most important pieces of exculpatory evidence."
Babbitt dismissed the charges with prejudice, meaning that they cannot be refiled unless the dismissal is overturned. It was unclear if prosecutors will appeal. District Attorney William Norine couldn't be reached for comment.
Huggett, 33, shot and killed Peach on Jan. 20, 2008, after a weeklong exchange of heated text messages led to angry telephone calls and climaxed with the break-in. Huggett was living with Peach's ex-girlfriend, Amy Kerbel, and her and Peach's child. Kerbel was also pregnant with Huggett's child.
"Mr. Huggett has always been disturbed -- I've been disturbed that this evidence didn't exist, because it existed at one point, and it showed that he was innocent," said Huggett's attorney, Craig Mastantuono.
By the time Burnett County authorities subpoenaed for information contained on Huggett and Kerbel's phones, they were told the data were no longer available. Both Huggett and Kerbel had received threatening text and voice-mail messages from Peach.
Only Jan. 20 text messages were preserved, although Peach had been sending threatening text messages since Jan. 15, according to the judge. On the night of the shooting, a sheriff's deputy began copying text messages Peach sent to Kerbel's cell phone, but stopped because there were too many, court documents show. A sheriff's deputy had briefly listened to part of a voice-mail message Peach left on Kerbel's cell phone, but didn't take notes, and the deputy can no longer recall its tone or content, Babbitt wrote. Kerbel had told authorities that the message was "angry, hostile, loud, yelling."
At one point during the investigation, Huggett asked detective Tracy Finch if she had listened to a message from Peach on Huggett's phone. In the end, no one did.
Peach left the messages just hours before he broke into Huggett's home about 10 p.m. Huggett shot him twice as Kerbel and her son barricaded themselves in another room.
"I thought he was going to kill me," Huggett told authorities.
Peach sounded drunk in his messages, court papers show.
"This court is satisfied that Huggett did what he reasonably should have done to have the evidence preserved; namely, he told Detective Finch precisely where the voice mail was located, he summarized it to her immediately after the incident as best he could, and he even went so far as to suggest she listen to it," Babbitt wrote.
The voice-mail messages on Kerbel's and Huggett's phones "go directly to whether or not Huggett acted reasonably in shooting John Peach," the judge wrote.
Through Mastantuono, Huggett declined to comment. He had been free on bail awaiting trial.
It's unclear why the sheriff's detectives failed to listen to the messages in their entirety and transcribe contents, or why they didn't act quicker in transcribing the week's text messages.
Sheriff Dean Roland could not be reached for comment; Mastantuono declined to speculate.
"Clearly, this was a victory for Mr. Huggett," Mastantuono said. "Very recently, he's doing quite well. He's relieved."
Huggett was placed on paid administrative leave from the Minneapolis Fire Department soon after the shooting, but returned several months ago to work in the department's equipment facility, said city spokesman Matt Laible. The city has not received official word on Huggett's case, but in general, Laible said, city employees can return to their regular work once cleared of criminal charges. Huggett was hired in 2001.
Soon after the shooting, he and Kerbel split up. Earlier this year, he incurred a number of criminal charges, including not having a tail light, not registering a vehicle, operating under the influence of alcohol and resisting an officer.
"This isn't ending the recovery from this incident," Mastantuono said. "I think that he's on the road to recovery."
Chao Xiong • 612-673-4391