One week ago, Missouri resident Dale Helmig was able to relax for the first time in 18 years. On Aug. 15, Osage County Prosecuting Attorney Amanda Grellner officially dismissed the charge that Mr. Helmig had killed his mother in 1993. He was wrongly convicted in 1996 and sentenced to life without parole.
Mr. Helmig's nightmare began with inept law enforcement and continued with a trial contaminated by false and misleading testimony, a hapless defense mounted by a drug-impaired lawyer and misconduct by a star prosecutor.
Appealing the tainted guilty verdict through state and federal courts took 14 years while Mr. Helmig remained in prison for a crime he did not commit. He is entitled to file civil charges against Osage County and the state of Missouri; he couldn't be blamed if he did.
Mr. Helmig, who lives in Rocky Mount, has been free on bond since last December. The previous month, DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain had ruled that Mr. Helmig and his long-time appeals lawyer, Sean O'Brien, had proved Mr. Helmig's "actual innocence."
Judge McElwain also affirmed Mr. Helmig's claims of blatant violations of due process of law during his 1996 trial and misconduct by the state's lead prosecutor, Kenny Hulshof. At the time, Mr. Hulshof was an assistant state attorney general handling high-profile criminal cases in rural counties. Four months after the trial, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He left the House in 2009 after losing the 2008 race for Missouri governor.
Mr. Hulshof, the judge wrote, "deliberately" used unproven allegations as evidence, elicited testimony that he "knew or should have known" was false and hid evidence from the defense that supported Mr. Helmig's innocence.
Mr. Hulshof issued a statement at the time saying he and fellow prosecutor Robert Schollmeyer "did our best, ethically and within the spirit of the law, to ensure a fair and reasonable verdict was reached based on the evidence at hand."
Mr. Helmig's case, and Mr. Hulshof's prosecution of it, was the subject of several probing Post-Dispatch articles in 2005 by Terry Ganey, then the newspaper's Jefferson City bureau chief. Mr. Helmig, now 55, was not the only Missourian abused by what Judge McElwain called Mr. Hulshof's "fundamentally unfair" conduct as a prosecutor. Two other noteworthy cases:
• Joshua Kezer also established his "actual innocence" of murder and was ordered released in 2009 after 16 years in prison. Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan, now U.S. attorney in St. Louis, said Mr. Hulshof had withheld key evidence from the defense. "We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in that final [trial] summary was true," the judge wrote.
• Richard Clay was sentenced to death for murder after a 1995 trial that Mr. Hulshof prosecuted. A federal judge overturned the conviction in 2001 based on testimony that Mr. Hulshof and a fellow prosecutor had urged a witness to lie on the stand. Another judge reinstated Clay's sentence in 2004, but earlier this year, Mr. Nixon — who was Missouri's attorney general when Mr. Hulshof was a prosecutor in the office — commuted it to life without parole.
Mr. Hulshof is now practicing "public policy" law in Kansas City. He is unlikely ever to prosecute another criminal case. That's for the best.
America's system of justice, like all human endeavors, is imperfect. But keeping the terrible consequences of mistakes to a minimum requires dedication to the rule of law, the rules of procedure and the principles of fairness. Anyone unwilling or unable to do so ought to find another line of work.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.