Helmig holds no grudges
Tuesday, August 16, 2011
A 55-year-old house painter who served 14 years in prison for his mother’s slaying didn’t expect to learn he wouldn’t be retried during a Sunday morning trip to the convenience store.
Dale Helmig has been in limbo for the past nine months. He was freed from prison after a northwest Missouri judge ruled he was a “victim of manifest injustice” and two state appeals courts upheld that decision.
But it wasn’t until Helmig found out that Osage County prosecutor Amanda Grellner — who didn’t handle his original case — decided to dismiss charges that he could breathe easy for the first time in nearly two decades. He read about the dismissal in the Jefferson City News Tribune, which first reported Grellner’s decision.
“It didn’t hit me right away,” said Helmig, who has been living with his younger brother in Rocky Mount, near the Lake of the Ozarks’ north shore and a short drive from his adult son in Eldon and a 16-year-old daughter in Jefferson City.
He was still absorbing the news Monday as he applied for a temp service job and visited a sick relative in Columbia.
Helmig had been sentenced to life in prison without parole for his mother’s 1993 death. His lawyer said Helmig is the 20th inmate to be released from a Missouri prison over the past three decades on an overturned conviction. Nine were convicted of murder, and four of those were sentenced to death. Seven men were freed based on DNA evidence.
“There is something wrong with the criminal justice system,” said Sean O’Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor associated with the Midwestern Innocence Project.
“When an airplane crashes, we have the National Transportation Safety Board collect every nut and bolt and piece of the airplane to see what’s wrong,” O’Brien added. “There’s nothing like that in the criminal justice system.”
DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain ruled in November 2010 that Helmig was “actually innocent of the crime.” The judge said former special state prosecutor Kenny Hulshof and Osage Sheriff Carl Fowler misled the trial court and jurors, while Hulshof and Grellner’s predecessor relied on false testimony by a state trooper who mischaracterized a statement from Helmig as a confession.
Helmig’s release from prison marks the second such instance involving a case handled by Hulshof since 2009. Josh Kezer was freed in 2009 after serving 15 years for murder. A judge ruled in that case that Hulshof withheld evidence and embellished details in his closing arguments.
And a third Missouri man Hulshof prosecuted is hoping for the same result. Mark Woodworth has spent most of the past 16 years in prison after he was convicted of killing his neighbor in Chillicothe. He’s awaiting a Boone County judge’s ruling on an appeal that could prompt a new trial or lead to charges being dismissed.
Hulshof, who parlayed his role as a tough-on-crime prosecutor into six terms in Congress, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Grellner’s decision. He now works for the Kansas City law firm Polsinelli Shughart.
Fowler also did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Grellner declined further comment beyond a written statement in which she noted she reviewed court records and “all other available evidence” before making her decision.
Helmig told The Associated Press he is considering a civil lawsuit over his wrongful conviction. Kezer, the other inmate who was freed, won a multi-million dollar settlement against Scott County.
“That is something we’re going to be talking about in the near future,” Helmig said.
Still, he said he holds no grudges against the state and local authorities who quickly identified him as the prime suspect in the death of his mother, Norma, whose body was found tied to a concrete block along the Osage River during the 1993 Midwest floods. She was 55 — the same age as her son is now.
“I had to get rid of that anger years ago,” he said. “It was just eating me up.”
Some exonerated ex-inmates embrace their newfound notoriety, including Kezer and Darryl Burton, who was released in 2008 after 24 years in prison in a fatal St. Louis gas station shooting. Both are regular speakers at Missouri law schools and among community and religious groups.
Helmig has a different plan. He wants to continue fishing at the lake and reconnect with his youngest daughter, who was barely 1 year old when he was imprisoned.
Mostly, he wants to work, to get his fingers dirty and feel useful again. He said he’s not particular: He worked as a janitor in prison and has experience in construction. But so far his job search has been “more than a little discouraging,” he said.
Helmig said his lawyer told him not to share his views on whether his father played a role in his mother’s death. The couple was going through a bitter divorce, and McElwain’s ruling identified Ted Helmig as a suspect.
“There’s been so much time gone by, and the investigation was so focused on me rather the person who committed the crime, we may never know,” Dale Helmig said.
In her statement, Grellner called the case “an open and ongoing investigation” and didn’t rule out charging Helmig again should new evidence emerge.
He said he has no reason to believe that would happen.
“I’m not worried about them coming back after me,” he said. “It’s over.”