The Justice Files: Man claimed rights violated by no-knock bench warrant

Justice Files

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Karl Winsness still wants to clear his name.

After 32-years, Winsness still believed he was wronged by the judicial system and law enforcement.

In 1988, police attempted to serve a no-knock bench warrant for his arrest. He was suspected of dealing in cocaine.

“I was at my home minding my own business when my door came kicking and crashing in,” Winsness recalled.

He grabbed his bun and saw two men with guns coming through his door.

“I fired two warning shots to let them know I had a gun also,” he said. “I assumed I was being robbed.”

Photographs from the incident showed his first two shots landed near the top of the door and an awning just outside the entrance. Two more bullet holes were found at eye level on a wall near the door.

“This is the whole thing, they did not make any announcement,” he said. “Nobody said they announced.”

Police retreated. According to media reports at the time, one officer was wounded. But there was a standoff.

 “I was on a date at the time (and) I heard it on the news,” said his daughter Lisa Curtis back in 2012. “I saw my dad’s house on the news and police were surrounding it and I knew he was going to go away for a long time.”

He eventually surrendered with the police never firing a shot. He was charged and a jury convicted Winsness of attempted homicide and was sent to prison. He never felt his attorney attacked the credibility of the police officers who served the warrant.

“(It was) ineffective assistance of counsel,” he said.

Despite the unhappiness with his attorney, Winsness served 17-years in prison and lost quality time with his children.

But it’s after he was released and back with his family that Wisness turned his life around.

He became a plumber and was able to earn a substantial living that he decided to give back.

Wisness teamed up with a non-profit group to form the “Willy the Plumber” college scholarship fund for children whose parents were in prison.  

“Sometimes those kids never thought about going to college so if I can get the kids to start thinking they go to college in the 7th grade (and) do better, I think we can make a huge difference,” he told ABC4 in 2012.

And thanks to Winsness many students did get a chance at going to college. Winsness’s charitable gesture gained state and national attention. He was in demand.

“They’ve worked hard,” he said back then. “They haven’t done anything wrong.”

But what happened to Winsness in 1988 still bothered him. He still believed police lied about their no-knock warrant. As part of his defense, he received copies of the original police reports. The original report differs from supplemental reports. In those follow-up reports, officers clarified their approach to the home. They claimed they announced themselves prior to entering the home.  Witness statements from neighbors also indicated they heard shots but no one heard police identify themselves before entering. Winsness’s attorney said his attorney never argues those points as part of his defense.

“How do I know they were a police person or maybe like gangsters,” he said. “If you’re sitting home and someone breaks in you have a right to defend your house, you have a right to defend yourself.”

But no-knock search warrants have held up when challenged in court. He acted as his own attorney during the appeals. They’ve all been dismissed on technical issues.

“I know my constitutional rights were violated,” he maintained.

There is one avenue of hope for Winsness and it lies with the office that prosecuted him. Thursday as his quest for justice continues, Winsness is hoping the Salt Lake district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit will take up his case.

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