KANSAS CITY — Convicted murderer Dale Helmig has spent the past 17 years proclaiming his innocence in his mother's death. On Wednesday, a Missouri judge agreed, paving the way for Helmig's possible release from prison.
DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain ruled that Helmig "established his innocence by clear and convincing evidence." He called Helmig, who was convicted in 1996 of killing his mother three years earlier in central Missouri's Osage County, a "victim of manifest injustice."
And the judge again called into question the courtroom conduct of Kenny Hulshof, the former congressman who handled Helmig's case as a special state prosecutor assigned to help overmatched, small-town colleagues in murder trials.
"This case is indeed one of those rare and exceptional cases in which new evidence demonstrates that the petitioner is actually innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole," McElwain wrote.
The judge ruled that Hulshof and former Osage Sheriff Carl Fowler misled the trial court and jurors by suggesting that Helmig had thrown hot coffee in his mother's face during an argument at a Jefferson City diner three days before her disappearance on July 29, 1993.
She had instead fought with her husband, Ted, who was under a court order to stay away from his wife. Jurors were never told about that court warning, either.
The judge's ruling also criticized Hulshof for suggesting in court that a tearful statement by Helmig the night of his arrest amounted to a confession. A state trooper testified earlier this year that his previous testimony about Helmig's supposed confession was inaccurate.
Hulshof, a Columbia resident who works for the Kansas City law firm Polsinelli Shughart, said in a statement Wednesday night issued through a colleague that "a prosecutor's job is never easy." Hulshof said he and then-local prosecutor Robert Schollmeyer, now an Osage County associate circuit judge, "did our best, ethically and within the spirit of the law, to ensure a fair and reasonable verdict was reached on the evidence at hand."
A 2008 investigation by AP found that prosecutorial errors by Hulshof led to four death sentence reversals, though those defendants were later convicted in subsequent trials.
In another case, convicted murderer Joshua Kezer was freed in 2009 — after 15 years in state prison — when a judge ruled that Hulshof withheld evidence and embellished details in his closing arguments.
Hulshof spent six terms in Congress, was a finalist for the University of Missouri System presidency and won the Republican nomination for governor in 2008 before losing to Democrat Jay Nixon — his former boss as the state's top prosecutor.
A spokeswoman for current Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said that state prosecutors have not decided whether to appeal McElwain's ruling.
If they do not — as was the case in the Kezer case, and the Osage County prosecutor declines to file new murder charges — Helmig would go free.
"I've still got some work to do," said Helmig's defense attorney, Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor.
O'Brien has spent 12 years investigating Helmig's case, after Helmig's brother, Richard, came to his office to ask for his help. When O'Brien learned about Helmig's case, he said he knew he couldn't turn his back on "injustice on such a magnitude."
"This case is the perfect storm of a miscarriage of justice," O'Brien said.
When the judge gave the verdict today, O'Brien rushed to the prison to share the news with Helmig, who, when hearing that he is now innocent, was "tearful."
"I'll be ready to celebrate when Dale is free," O'Brien said. "I told him I'll buy him a steak dinner — a nice, juicy, steak."
Questions concerning Helmig's innocence were also brought to light by the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that has provided support staff and funding for investigating the case. The Midwestern Innocence Project created a team of students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City's School of Law, the MU School of Law and the Missouri School of Journalism to assist with the case.
"I'm extremely excited for Dale," said Tiffany Murphy, legal director of the Midwestern Innocence Project. "I'm very happy for the result of the case."
Norma Helmig's body was found along the flood-swollen Osage River, tied to a concrete block, near her home in the central Missouri town of Linn during the 1993 Midwest floods. Hulshof and Fowler, the sheriff, had suggested that Dale Helmig was motivated in part by greed, citing his mother's missing purse to bolster their case.
New testimony presented earlier this year showed that Norma Helmig's purse — which washed up along the Missouri River six months after her body was found — included several personal checks canceled by her bank 10 days later, which refutes the prosecution's account that Dale Helmig threw her purse out of his car window while driving back to a Fulton motel the night his mother went missing.
Helmig's case has been the subject of a documentary film and several television true-crime episodes, most recently showing last year on "America's Most Wanted" — a show that typically focuses on catching criminals, not freeing the wrongfully convicted.
O'Brien wants Helmig to be released from state prison, pending the state's decision on a possible appeal or the local prosecutor's decision to file new charges. The lawyer won a new trial for Helmig in a federal case alleging jury misconduct in 2005, but that decision was overturned on appeal.
"It is my hope that rational minds prevail on this and Dale be immediately released," O'Brien said.
Steve Weinberg, a director of the Innocence Protect and a retired MU journalism professor, said the exoneration is "a beautiful victory."
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that when someone is convicted in the court, it’s really hard to get him out," Weinberg said. "It's set up that way for a reason, so people won't be perpetually in doubt about who is innocent and who is not. But it's ridiculously difficult to reopen a case.
"That is why every exoneration is such a beautiful victory. It often takes 10 years for it to happen."
A hearing on the request is scheduled for Nov. 10.
Missourian reporter Regina Wang contributed to this report.