A look back at a 20-year-old murder and if the right person was convicted

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Posted, Wednesday November 26, 2014 --- 5:26 p.m.

A 20-year-old murder case. The suspect, charged and convicted.

But the wrong person could be behind bars. Did the jury get it wrong? And will DNA evidence back that up?

It was March 14th, 1994.

"It's hard to believe that this is not just a dream. That this is really happening to us," said Ann Gonstead in 1994.

21-year-old Sarah Gonstead went out drinking with her friend Penny Brummer, and never came home.

25 days passed. Friends and family continued searching. Sarah's mother Linda, desperate for information.

But on April 9th after a bicyclist spotted something in the woods just west of Pine Bluff, Gonstead's mother would face the terrible realization that her baby wouldn't be returning.

Sarah body was found with a bullet hole in the back of her head.

In less than a week authorities had zeroed in on 24-year-old Penny Brummer. The last person to admit to seeing Gonstead alive after their night of binge drinking.

Their reasoning, Brummer was dating Glenda Johnson. Johnson and Gonstead had been best friends since they were kids, and investigators say Brummer was filled with jealousy whenever the two of them hung out.

On top of that: Brummers late father had owned a .22 caliber gun. The same type of gun that was used to shoot Sarah in the back of the head. Her father's gun couldn't be located at her mother's home.

"We can place the suspect and the victim in the west end of Dane County at the time the suspect says the victim was being dropped off, " said then Dane County Sheriff, Rick Raemisch.

A witness testified that the pair were at Jake's bar around midnight, a bar near where Sarah's body was found, and far from the Taco Bell Penny said she left her at around 11.

John Pray with Wisconsin Innocence Project said Penny was drinking heavily, possibly even blacking out. He says it's her hazy memory of the nights timeline that made her look guilty.

"As I view it, that's how the state made their timeline on these guesses of Penny's as to 'I think I was at this place for that long' and that ended up being damaging to her because she was just trying to estimate about how long she was at various places," said Pray.

Penny was sentenced to life in prison on all circumstantial evidence.

"All I want to say is I didn't do it," Penny told the court right after she was convicted.

The murder weapon has still never been found, and according to Penny's mom, the true killer hasn't been either.

"There's a murderer out there and the system has let him go for 20 years. Who knows how many more he's murdered?" Penny's mom, Nancy added.

So did investigators look at Penny with tunnel vision? Are there things they missed? Why has Penny maintained her innocence all these years?

"There's zero motive that makes sense why she would kill her," Pray added.

The defense did bring a witness in who says he saw a man with what looked like a pink duffel bag, the same color as Sarah's coat, on the side of the road where Gonstead's body was found days after she went missing. But says investigators didn't look into it.

"One of the things the DNA age has shown is we can get it wrong," Pray said.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project has been testing DNA from Sarah's clothes including some isolated bloodstains they say may have come from the killer, and other items found at the scene, like a Taco Bell cup---that could support Penny's story. Looking for, in their words, the real killers DNA.

"It's expensive, it takes a long time, we've been at this testing for several years," Pray said.

The Innocence Project did get a grant for some of the testing, but the rest is on Penny's dime.

"It's hard, it gets harder all the time," added Nancy Brummer.

In her mind, each day that passes is a day being stolen from her daughter. She says she thinks Penny's sexual orientation played a big role in her conviction.

"They didn't look at her, they just looked at it as let's get another gay person off the street," said Nancy.

But no matter the reasoning behind the conviction, Glenda Johnson, the person the defense pointed the finger at, thinks Sarah's killer is behind bars. Telling us in a Facebook message, "From the moment Sarah was missing I had a funny feeling that Penny did it."

Sarah's family couldn't be reached. Her mother passed away last year, but as Nancy Brummer says, at least she's with Sarah now and knows the truth.

"They know she didn't do it, in their heart of hearts, they know she did not do it," said Nancy.

The DNA results are expected in the next few months. We speak with the foreman of the jury that convicted Penny. He says he didn't want to talk about the situation 20 years ago and doesn't want to now. I did ask him if he still stands by the decision they made 20 years ago. He said that's a really difficult question. Saying "all I can say is we made a unanimous decision based on the evidence and information we were given."


Posted Sunday, March 11, 2012 --- 2:22 p.m.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Prosecutors have approved a new round of DNA testing in a 1994 case that the Wisconsin Innocence Project says could clear a Spring Green woman in a Madison woman's death.

The project plans to test victim Sarah Gonstead's clothes and other samples.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne tells the Wisconsin State Journal the testing will be at Penny Brummer's expense.

The 21-year-old Gonstead was found three weeks after she disappeared. She was last seen alive the night of March 14, 1994, when she went bar-hopping with Brummer, then 25. Brummer testified she dropped Gonstead off behind a bar and last saw her in a parking lot.

The project says Gonstead's clothes and underwear contain never-before-tested blood stains that don't appear to be from the bullet wound that killed her.

Copyright 2012. The Associated Press.