COLUMBIA, Mo. - A central Missouri man whose 1996 murder conviction in his mother's death was overturned last week will remain in prison - for now - while the state appeals the decision.
Dale Helmig is serving a life sentence for the 1993 death of Norma Helmig, whose body was found tied to a concrete block in a flood-swollen river in Osage County. The same DeKalb County judge who declared the 54-year-old man innocent on Nov. 3 deferred a decision Wednesday on whether he can leave prison pending the state's appeal.
Senior Judge Warren McElwain referred the issue of Helmig's release to the Missouri Court of Appeals. He set a Nov. 22 deadline for the state to file paperwork with the appeals court and said he'll order Helmig's immediate release if that deadline is not met.
"We are continuing to fight for Dale Helmig's release at the earliest possible time," said defense attorney Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor. "There are no legal grounds to disturb Judge McElwain's finding that the government used perjured testimony to convict an innocent person."
McElwain ruled that prosecutors and law enforcement officers withheld evidence and presented false testimony at trial. The judge also said Helmig's attorney was likely under the influence of drugs in court.
On Monday, Attorney General Chris Koster announced the state's intent to appeal McElwain's ruling.
"Two separate entities - a Gasconade County jury and a DeKalb County circuit judge - have reviewed the evidence in this case and arrived at dramatically different conclusions," Koster said in a statement. "This is an extraordinarily serious matter. Because our system of law is one of checks and balances, it is appropriate that the judge's decision be reviewed by the Missouri appellate courts before it is rendered final."
Helmig also won a new trial in a federal case alleging jury misconduct in 2005, but that decision was overturned on appeal.
McElwain, who serves in the northwest Missouri county where Helmig is imprisoned, suggested in his ruling that Norma Helmig's husband, Ted, was a more likely suspect than their son Dale. 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.
And while Helmig's potential release could mean more scrutiny of his father, younger brother Rich Helmig rejected the theory that Ted Helmig was involved. He instead thinks his mother was the victim of a burglar or a drug dealer.
"We're all still family," Rich Helmig said. "We don't think Dad had anything to do with it."
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 testified earlier this year that he had access to his wife's mail and canceled checks after her death. But he has consistently denied killing her. He reiterated those denials in an interview last week after learning of McElwain's ruling.
"I really don't care," he said, when asked about possible scrutiny of his involvement. "I know I didn't have anything to do with it. But they might think I did."