An appeals court wrestled for nearly two hours Thursday with the fate of Dale Helmig, who was convicted of murdering his mother but released from prison after what a trial judge called “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.”
Senior Judge Warren McElwain ruled last year that new evidence indicates Helmig didn’t kill his mother in 1993 and that his trial wasn’t constitutionally sound.
Now, judges from the Court of Appeals Western District must decide if the new evidence is enough for Helmig to get a new trial — despite multiple courts that have affirmed Helmig’s conviction.
A handful of Missouri inmates have been freed after discovering evidence that exonerates them. But as the appellate judges said Thursday, the new evidence merely “pokes holes” in the original case against Helmig.
The court must decide if jurors hearing that evidence probably would reach a different conclusion than a jury reached at the original trial. Judge Cynthia Martin, who led the three-judge panel that considered the case, said little direct caselaw exists to guide the decision.
“This is new ground that we’re going to have to decide,” she said.
Norma Helmig was killed on July 29, 1993. Her body was found a few days later in a flooded river in Osage County, tied to a concrete block.
Dale Helmig was convicted of his mother’s murder in 1996. No physical evidence tied him to the crime, but prosecutors built a case on circumstantial evidence. The conviction survived numerous appeals.
Then in November, Judge McElwain issued a 110-page decision on a motion for habeas corpus, ruling Helmig was “factually innocent” of the crime, based on new evidence. Among other things, a state trooper recanted testimony that Helmig never denied killing his mother, and jurors in the original trial improperly consulted a map during deliberations that wasn’t introduced as evidence. The map convinced a holdout juror to convict Helmig.
In addition, prosecutors at the original trial argued that Helmig tossed his mother’s purse into the river as he drove away from her house after killing her. The purse, found in a flooded field months after her death, contained canceled checks. After the trial was over, one of the checks was shown to have cleared the bank a few days after the murder.
After her death, Norma Helmig’s estranged husband, Ted Helmig, handled her mail and had access to a bank statement that contained the canceled checks. In briefs and previous court hearings, Dale Helmig’s lawyers have strongly suggested that Ted Helmig played a role in the murder.
That accusation was front and center at Thursday’s appellate hearing. Judge Mark Pfeiffer said at one point that, based on the canceled checks, “I don’t have a doubt that the evidence ties Ted Helmig to the crime.” But such a conclusion, Pfeiffer said, doesn’t necessarily exclude Dale Helmig as the murderer. Pfeiffer listed, at length, unfavorable evidence that would remain in the case if it went back for another trial, including that Dale Helmig had no alibi for the time of the murder.
“It doesn’t remove him from the crime,” the judge said.
Ted Helmig’s possible role in his wife’s murder has surfaced at previous court hearings, and McElwain’s order concluded there was “evidence connecting Ted Helmig to the murder.”
Ted Helmig previously has denied involvement in his wife’s death, according to media reports. A phone number for Ted Helmig in Eldon, Mo., was disconnected.
Pfeiffer’s concern highlighted the odd procedural posture of the case. Helmig is making a “gateway innocence” claim. In essence, he says the new information that has come to light would alter the case so much that a new jury would most likely acquit him. That would allow the court to order a new trial, which would otherwise be barred because all of Helmig’s other appeals have been exhausted.
Sean O’Brien, an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and board member of the Midwestern Innocence Project, is representing Helmig. He said the habeas process has been “the first opportunity for a court to look globally at all the evidence,” and that, as a result, the case against Helmig has been “obliterated.”
“The state’s case has been exposed primarily as lies and half-truths,” O’Brien said.
But Stephen Hawke, the assistant Missouri attorney general who argued on behalf of the state, argued that all of the “new” evidence could have been gathered at the time of the original trial, either through more research or by better questioning of witnesses.
“This case is about whether one judge can substitute his judgment of whether the trial was fair,” Hawke said.
The judges struggled with the legal standard that should be applied, running through a long list of state and federal cases, none of which were exactly on point.
“Are we opening up every circumstantial case?” Judge Gary Witt wondered.
Although it was the only case on Thursday’s docket, the three judges’ barrage of questions made the argument take nearly as much time as the court would normally spend on four cases.
Dale Helmig attended Thursday’s hearing in Kansas City. He declined to comment after the arguments.
“At this point, I’m still a defendant in a murder case,” he said.
The case is State ex rel. Koster v. McElwain, WD73211.