MAYSVILLE, Mo. (CN) – A judge’s overturning of a murder conviction has raised questions about a former Missouri congressman’s conduct as a prosecuting attorney. DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain ordered that Dale Helmig be released from prison, after 14 years, or retried immediately. Judge McElwain found that Helmig “is actually innocent,” and is a “victim of manifest injustice.”
Helmig was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1996 for the 1993 murder of his mother, Norma Helmig. He was prosecuted by Kenny Hulshof, went on to serve six terms in Congress and was a finalist for the University of Missouri system presidency. He was Republican gubernatorial nominee in 2008, losing to Democrat Jay Nixon.
In his 115-page ruling, McElwain wrote that Helmig was found guilty due to false evidence, overreaching prosecutors and impaired defense counsel.
“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.
At his trial, prosecutors claimed that greed motivated Helmig to kill his mother; they used Norma Helmig’s missing purse as evidence.
Norma Helmig was found along the flood-swollen Osage River during the 1993 floods.
But new testimony presented this year showed that her purse, which washed up along the Missouri River 6 months after her body was found, contained several personal checks that were canceled by her bank, refuting prosecutors’ claim that Dale Helmig threw the purse out his car window the night his mother went missing.
McElwain criticized the courtroom conduct of prosecuting attorney Kenny Hulshof.
“The prosecutor also argued, with no competent evidentiary support, that petitioner had physically assaulted his mother in a restaurant in an argument over money three days before she was murdered,” McElwain wrote.
The person involved in the argument, who allegedly threw the coffee, was Ted Helmig, the victim’s husband. Ted Helmig was under a court order to stay away from his wife – but Dale Helmig’s jury was not informed of that.
McElwain was also critical of Hulshof’s line of questioning.
McElwain wrote: “Mr. Hulshof chose to end his direct examination and case in-chief with a dramatic flair, eliciting from trooper Westfall a tacit admission by Mr. Helmig to his mother’s murder:
“Q. (BY MR. HULSHOF) Sir, at any time during these contacts and particularly during this conversation which you’ve just shared with us, did Dale Helmig ever deny killing Norma Helmig to you?
“A. No, sir, he did not.
“MR. HULSHOF: I think that’s all that I have, Judge.
“The problem is that this testimony is completely false. Trooper Westfall’s report of March 6, 1994, reflects exactly the opposite – that Mr. Helmig ‘stated that he did not murder his mother and that the sheriff was after him.'”
This is not the first time Hulshof’s actions as a prosecuting attorney have been questioned. A 2008 investigation by The Associated Press found that four death sentence reversals were caused by prosecutorial errors by Hulshof, though the defendants were later convicted in subsequent trials.
In another case, convicted murderer Joshua Keezer was freed in 2009 after a judge found that Hulshof withheld evidence and embellished details in his closing arguments. Keezer spent 15 years in prison.
Hulshof is now an attorney with Polisnelli-Shughart in Kansas City.
“A prosecutor’s job is never easy,” Hulshof said in a statement. “A strong circumstantial case was built from the investigative evidence provided at the time by the Osage County Sheriff’s Office. Robert Shollmeyer and I 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. … It is my hope that the authorities will consider all their options before making a decision whether or not to appeal or retry this case following this most recent judicial review.”
Missouri Attorney Chris Koster has not decided whether to retry Helmig.
Helmig’s attorney has filed a motion to release him on bond. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for Nov. 10.