MADISON – State officials on Friday rescinded a decision to parole a man who stabbed his estranged wife more than 40 times in front of their children, an uncommon reversal sought by Gov. Tony Evers just six days before the convicted killer was eligible to leave prison.
The move came just hours after Evers implored the chairman of the Wisconsin Parole Commission to reconsider his decision to release Douglas Balsewicz more than 50 years before his sentence expired.
Evers sent the letter to Chairman John Tate following a meeting with the victim’s family, who had been asking for a conversation for days, and under heavy criticism from Republicans vying to defeat him in November.
The governor met with several relatives of Johanna Rose Balsewicz, a mother of two who was killed in 1997 at age 23 by Douglas Balsewicz — a meeting that left the victim’s daughter and sisters hopeful, they said.
“I think it’s very wrong what Tate did and decided and I hope he changes his mind after this,” Nikkole Nelson, Johanna Balsewicz’s daughter, said outside of Evers’ office after the meeting.
Nelson, who at 2-years-old witnessed her mother’s brutal murder, brought with her to the state Capitol her 4-week-old daughter, who bears the same middle name as her grandmother.
By Friday evening, the floor had been revoked.
“I understand the concerns raised by the Governor regarding victim input into the parole process,” Tate said in an email. “Given the importance of the opportunity for victims to be heard and for their input to be meaningfully considered, I have placed the parole grant on hold, effectively immediately, and will be rescinding my previous approval of parole.”
“Oh my God, are you kidding me?” Kim Cornils, Johanna Balsewicz’s sister, exclaimed to an Associated Press reporter when he told her in a phone call that Tate had agreed to rescind Douglas Balsewicz’s parole. “Oh my God, thank you. Thank you so much. That is good.”
Tate rescinded the decision to grant parole despite telling the Racine Journal Times earlier Friday that it was extremely unlikely for Douglas Balsewicz’s parole to be revoked at this point, now that it has already been approved. Tate said should his parole be revoked, the state would likely be sued successfully.
In the letter to Tate, Evers said he did not have the authority to block Tate’s decision to grant early parole to Douglas Balsewicz but urged him to consider new statements from the victim’s family “to determine whether this additional victim input changes your opinion as to whether release would depreciate the seriousness of this offence.”
“I do not agree with this decision, and I have considerable concerns regarding whether Johanna’s family was afforded sufficient opportunity to voice their memories, perspectives, and concerns before this decision was made,” Evers wrote.
“I have often spoken about forgiveness and the power of redemption — values I know Johanna’s family and I both share. I also believe, however, and Wisconsin state law agrees, that the voices, experiences, and trauma of victims of crimes must weigh heavily in these conversations and deserve full and meaningful consideration. Justice simply demands it.”
Cornilssaid the family didn’t receive official notification by mail that Tate had granted parole for Douglas Balsewicz until Thursday — six days before he was scheduled to be released.
After unsuccessfully seeking a meeting with Evers for days, the victim’s family visited the state Capitol on Thursday to force a conversation with the governor. The group met with Evers’ chief of staff Maggie Gau instead because Evers was traveling.
Cornils said after Friday’s meeting, “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that Gov. Evers cares about murdered women and families in the state of Wisconsin. And I know that without a doubt today.”
Douglas Balsewicz, 54, fatally stabbed his estranged wife, Johanna, more than 40 times in her West Allis home in 1997, while the couple’s two small children were present. He was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory life sentence upon conviction.
He pleaded guilty to second-degree homicide and armed burglary, and was sentenced to 40 years on each count.
The savage slaying was the culmination of Douglas Balsewicz’s obsession with preventing his estranged wife from developing a relationship with another man. Documents filed in the husband’s homicide case say that in the months before her death, he constantly hounded his wife who told her divorce lawyer she was afraid of her husband, keeping a knife under her pillow at night.
Twice Johanna Balsewicz barricaded herself in a room out of fear of her husband. Once Douglas Balsewicz told his sister-in-law that he was planning to kill his wife because if he couldn’t have her, “no one would,” according to court records.
Before the murder, Douglas Balsewicz obsessively tracked his wife. He paged his wife up to 50 times a day to keep track of her whereabouts.
Finally, early on June 3, 1997, after a night of heavy drinking, he forced his way into his wife’s home and killed her.
“The homicide of Johanna Balsewicz was an attack and struggle that covered several rooms of the house,” Assistant District Attorney Mark Williams wrote in a pretrial motion at the time. “It began in the downstairs residence and it continued upstairs.
“Blood was throughout the house.”
The slaying was not discovered until after daylight, when a neighbor noticed the dead woman’s children wandering outside their home with blood on their hands and feet, according to the criminal complaint.
After spending the night in a bloody bedroom with their mother’s body, the 4-year-old boy left the house at daybreak with Nelson, his 2-year-old sister, leading her by her arm through the neighborhood until they were spotted by neighbors .
“He wanted to call 911, but his mom was (lying) on the phone,” Cornils told Circuit Judge Diane Sykes at the time. “(The daughter) demonstrates Johanna’s death by poking her body with her finger.
“She falls to the floor with her eyes open.”
The 4-year-old boy was fully clothed while Nelson was clad only in a diaper, according to the complaint.
Douglas and Johanna Balsewicz had been married just short of six years when he filed for divorce in 1997. The split ended a relationship that began when he was 20 and she was 14.
Over time, Douglas Balsewicz became consumed by the belief that his wife was unfaithful with the supernatural, according to one of his attorneys Thomas Wilmouth. Balsewicz also became convinced that ghosts inhabited the couple’s home and that the ghosts were having affairs with his wife, he said.
Balsewicz once had an exorcism performed at the house and once had a witch perform a ritual there to rid the place of demons, Wilmouth said.
Wilmouth argued the slaying of Balsewicz’s wife was fueled by Balsewicz’s “complete loss of self-control,” and carried out in “the heat of passion” at a time when he was hearing voices and under the influence of cocaine and alcohol.
Williams, who characterized the murder as among the worst he had ever seen, viewed the slaying differently.
“He knew what he was doing,” Williams said in 1997. “It wasn’t a hallucination.”
Douglas Balsewicz was first eligible for parole in 2017 and was denied. A panel of the Parole Commission reviewed his case last month for a fifth time. To earn parole, inmates generally must have shown good conduct, use of prison programming, a reduction in risk of reoffending, a plan for how they would live and work upon release, and have served an adequate amount of incarceration.
The commission determined that “the amount of time served is sufficient so as not to diminish the seriousness of the offence,” the commission said in a recent written statement. Douglas Balsewicz had not had any major conduct reports, has met all his programming needs and has been classified as minimum security, according to the commission.
Tate, who was appointed by Evers, approved Douglas Balsewicz’s parole on April 27. The Fox Lake Correctional Center could have released him as early as Tuesday under the now-rescinded decision.
Republican candidates for governor Rebecca Kleefisch, Tim Michels and Kevin Nicholson have all criticized the decision to grant parole. Kleefisch and Nicholson called for Evers to fire Tate.
Most of Wisconsin’s approximately 20,000 inmates were convicted after the state passed a “Truth in Sentencing” law in 1999 and serve their full terms, usually followed by additional time on supervision in the community.
Less than 2,000 inmates are still imprisoned for older convictions that include the option to seek parole. More than 150 were granted parole in each of the last two years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reporting on the 1997 homicide by David Doege, a former reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel who died in 2008, is included in this story.
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