|Catholic Educator Cleared in Sex Case
Another Man's Confession Brings Release from Prison
By Derrick Nunnally
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
July 17, 2007
Milwaukee (WI) — Authorities thought they had an airtight case against David Sanders when he was accused of sexually assaulting a boy in the mid-1980s at a south side Catholic school.
Instead, the 60-year-old Sanders has been freed after serving five months of a 15-year sentence because a second man's confession gave weight to the claim that Sanders was not the "Brother David" who committed the assaults.
With a quick "good luck, sir," the same judge who sentenced Sanders in January set him free June 22.
"It's the first time I've ever had it happen in 20 years of doing this," said Assistant District Attorney Miriam Falk, who persuaded a jury to find Sanders guilty in December. "We try to be pretty careful."
Evidence for the prosecution included a statement from the victim identifying Sanders as the man who molested him at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic school near S. 21st and W. Mitchell streets.
Now the same authorities who once were certain Sanders was a rapist are contemplating whether they have enough evidence to convict a different man, who like Sanders was a "Brother David" in Milwaukee in the 1980s and who authorities say confessed to the molestation.
An old letter the victim's grandmother turned up led them to interview a second "Brother David" - a David Nickerson in California, who had been stationed in Milwaukee in the 1980s - and he confessed, prosecutors say.
Deliberated 2 hours
The jury had needed about two hours to convict Sanders, and the case against him was heavy.
The victim, a man in his 20s, had identified "Brother David" from St. Vincent's as his assailant. The victim had been "approximately 9-10 years old" and an altar boy in the mid-1980s when the sex acts took place, court records say; he remembered the man who performed sex acts on him as the man who taught him First Communion rites, a trusted family friend whom the boy visited in Delaware.
He even picked Sanders out of a photo array.
Authorities turned up Sanders' 1980s address in the victim's family's address book, and when they found Sanders in Kentucky, they reported finding sexual content on his computer describing "an unusual sexual interest" similar to acts the victim described.
The jury heard all these things, but they didn't hear from Sanders.
He had been nervous throughout the case, told investigators at one point that he couldn't remember if he had done what he was accused of doing, and got sick enough in a courthouse hallway at one point that a hearing had to be postponed.
Sanders, however, had a substantial defense without testifying.
His attorney, Maureen Fitzgerald, had argued that Sanders was the wrong man, even pointed out that he had neither administered the victim's First Communion nor, as far as anyone could prove, ever been to Delaware. Sanders had worked at a host of Milwaukee-area parishes as a music teacher - but never St. Vincent's. The victim's grandmother even testified for the defense.
"The nature of our society today, with a charge that serious, the jury - I think this jury especially - came in wanting to convict someone," said Fitzgerald. "A child was molested. It's a very serious charge."
It looked like the story ended Jan. 26, when Circuit Judge Jeffrey A. Wagner said the right man had been convicted and criticized Sanders for abusing a position of trust.
"There appears to be no contrition," Wagner noted. Then he handed Sanders a 15-year prison sentence.
Five months later, Sanders said nothing in court while Assistant District Attorney Paul Tiffin explained that David Nickerson had been tracked down and confessed.
"An innocent man was convicted," Tiffin said, and asked to drop the case.
Case unraveled quickly
Attorney Byron Lichstein, who had taken up the case for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said developments had unfolded so quickly that all he had to do was show up in court to watch Sanders be set free.
Sanders is less than a month back into rebuilding his free life. He declined to comment for this article. His daughter, who lives in New Hampshire, said her father will discuss what happened when he's ready.
And authorities are figuring out whether to prosecute Nickerson.
They have his confession, but the victim in the case is now far from a prosecutor's ideal witness, even though he separately told authorities he had also been molested by several family members as a child - and they confessed. All were convicted and sent to prison.
The victim is now 30 and imprisoned on two convictions of sexually assaulting a child. He has also consistently maintained that Sanders was his assailant through the first trial, even after the conviction.
He has told a detective that the name David Nickerson "did sound familiar to him," court records state.
Falk said she hopes to make a decision this week about pursuing the case further.
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