MAYSVILLE— A 54-year-old former house painter whose murder conviction in the 1993 killing of his mother was overturned last month walked out of a northwest Missouri courthouse Monday free on bond pending the state's appeal of the reversal.
Dale Helmig had entered the DeKalb County Courthouse in the shackles and orange jumpsuit he wore for the trip from the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron. He changed into street clothes before the hearing and beamed as he spoke to reporters outside after being released on $5,000 bond.
"It's a little overwhelming," said Helmig, who had been imprisoned since his March 1996 conviction. "It feels great. I never gave up. I always knew one day I'd walk out a free man. Today is that day."
The first-degree murder charge remains in place because the state has said it plans to appeal the reversal of the verdict. If the reversal is upheld, it would be up to the Osage County prosecutor to determine whether to try the case again.
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has not taken a position on Helmig's guilt but has said it's appropriate for an appellate court to review whether the judge acted within his jurisdiction in tossing out the conviction.
On Monday, Koster issued a statement saying the $5,000 bond recommended earlier Monday by an appeals court was nearly unprecedented in a first-degree murder case.
Helmig began serving a life sentence in 1996 after being found guilty of murdering his mother, Norma Helmig. Her body was found tied to a concrete block in a flood-swollen river in central Missouri's Osage County.
His bond was set Monday by DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain, the same judge who cited prosecutorial zeal, false evidence and poor representation in overturning the conviction. McElwain called the case a "miscarriage of justice" and 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.
A 2008 investigation by The Associated Press 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, who works for the Kansas City law firm Polsinelli Shughart, has said previously that "a prosecutor's job is never easy."
McElwain, who serves in the northwest Missouri county where Helmig was imprisoned, suggested in his November ruling that Norma Helmig's husband, Ted Helmig, was a more likely suspect than Dale Helmig. Ted Helmig and his wife were going through a bitter divorce at the time.
Their rift included an incident at a Jefferson City diner where Ted Helmig threw a drink at his wife — a dispute wrongly blamed on Dale Helmig at his murder trial.
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 after her disappearance.
That scenario 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. Ted Helmig has consistently denied killing his wife. He paid his son's bond, said Helmig's brother, Richard.
"When you look and see how badly the system functioned to put an innocent man in prison it makes you mad," said Helmig's attorney for a dozen years, Sean O'Brien, who is also a University of Missouri-Kansas City associate law professor and Midwest Innocence Project board member. "It makes you want to do something."
Dale Helmig, who received congratulations from his fellow inmates before making a prayerful trip to the courthouse, now plans to begin rebuilding relationships with his three children — ages 21, 19 and 16. He also wants to fish with his brother, Richard.
"I always did believe in God," he said. "I always did stay in prayer, but I got a lot closer to him when I came to prison."