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Pickup thief's conviction stands

In a decision filed Jan. 27, the District III Court of Appeals affirmed a Pierce County jury's decision finding Michael Anthony Knudson guilty of stealing a pickup from an Ellsworth dealership.

In August 2007, the jury convicted Knudson, 25, of stealing a vehicle Sept. 10, 2005. He was found not guilty on a separate charge of burglary.

In September 2007, Judge Robert Wing sentenced Knudson to three years in prison, to run concurrent with a Minnesota sentence, and to a subsequent three years on extended supervision. Online court records list Knudson's current address as the Dunn County Jail in Menomonie.

In his appeal Knudson argued that his attorney failed to effectively represent him because she didn't question a witness about the witness's prior convictions, didn't argue that the man's convictions made him less trustworthy and didn't ask for jury instructions regarding the effect convictions have on a witness's credibility.

According to background in the appeals court decision, a black Ford F-350 pickup was stolen from a dealership in Ellsworth. Also taken were tools, diagnostic equipment, blank keys, key code books and two F-250 decals from another truck.

The next month a police officer stopped Knudson on an Indiana highway. He told the officer he had just bought the black pickup he was driving.

Police searched the truck and found an Arkansas title for an F-250 pickup Knudson had bought two months earlier. The vehicle identification numbers on the title and those on the truck matched, but all three VIN plates appeared to be altered. Also, the truck's odometer showed 50,000 fewer miles than the title indicated.

A hidden VIN on the truck was later matched with the pickup stolen from Ellsworth. When police searched Knudson's home and a shed, they found other things taken from the dealership.

At the trial, David Eich testified against Knudson, saying the two men burglarized the Ellsworth dealership together and replaced the pickup's VIN plates with those from a wrecked pickup. But when first interviewed by police, Eich had denied being involved in that burglary and another burglary at a River Falls dealership, suggesting Knudson was responsible for both.

Eich later pled guilty to the River Falls burglary, again telling police he wasn't involved in the Ellsworth burglary.

As part of that plea agreement, Eich agreed to testify against Knudson, and the day before the trial, Eich first admitted involvement in the Ellsworth theft.

Knudson denied the charges against him, saying he bought the truck from Eich and introduced a sale contract allegedly signed by both men.

Eich said he'd never seen the document before but agreed the signature looked similar to his.

Knudson accused Eich of transferring the VIN plates without Knudson's knowledge and said he didn't know how the other items found their way to his home. He said he was in jail during the month before his home was searched.

Eich admitted he knew there was a wood chute into Knudson's basement, and Knudson's lawyer suggested Eich went through the chute and planted the stolen items in the house.

Before the trial, the lawyers stipulated Eich could be impeached because he had six prior convictions, but he was never asked during the trial about those convictions.

Knudson subsequently asked the county judge to find that the defense attorney was ineffective. Judge Wing denied that motion without a hearing, and Knudson appealed.

The appeals court concluded Knudson wasn't harmed by his lawyer's failure to question Eich about his six prior convictions because jurors already knew he had "a significant criminal history."

The court said the jury knew Eich changed his testimony about his part in the Ellsworth burglary and knew he was serving a prison term in Minnesota at the time of the trial. During the trial, Eich testified he was convicted of the River Falls burglary and theft and that he hadn't gone to Indiana in 2005 because he was being held in jail.

"Furthermore," wrote the appeals court, "the jurors knew Eich had lied repeatedly to the police about the Ellsworth burglary."

The court also found the defense attorney repeatedly challenged Eich's credibility and emphasized his lies to police and that he was required to testify as part of the plea deal.

The appeals court also pointed out that the jury evidently didn't totally believe Eich because they acquitted Knudson of the burglary charge even though some of the items were found in his house.

The truck theft charge, concluded the appeals court, didn't rely just on Eich's testimony.