Convicted murderer Dale Helmig has spent the past 17 years proclaiming his innocence in his mother's death. On Wednesday, a Missouri judge agreed, paving the way for Helmig's possible release from prison.
DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain ruled that Helmig "established his innocence by clear and convincing evidence." He called Helmig, who was convicted in 1996 of killing his mother three years earlier in Osage County, a "victim of manifest injustice."
And the judge again 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.
"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.
The judge ruled that Hulshof and former Osage Sheriff Carl Fowler misled the trial court and jurors by suggesting that Helmig had thrown hot coffee in his mother's face during an argument at a Jefferson City diner three days before her disappearance on July 29, 1993.
She had instead fought with her husband Ted, who was under a court order to stay away from his wife. Jurors were never told about that warning, either.
The judge's ruling also criticized Hulshof for suggesting in court that a tearful statement by Helmig the night of his arrest amounted to a confession. A state trooper testified earlier this year that his previous testimony about Helmig's supposed confession was inaccurate.
Hulshof, a Columbia resident who works for the Kansas City law firm Polsinelli Shughart, said in a statement Wednesday night issued through a colleague that "a prosecutor's job is never easy." Hulshof said he and then-local prosecutor Robert Schollmeyer, now an Osage County associate circuit judge, "did our best, ethically and within the spirit of the law, to ensure a fair and reasonable verdict was reached on the evidence at hand."
A 2008 investigation by AP 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 spent six terms in Congress, was a finalist for the University of Missouri system presidency and won the Republican nomination for governor in 2008 before losing to Democrat Jay Nixon - his former boss as the state's top prosecutor.
A spokeswoman for current Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster said that state prosecutors have not decided whether to appeal McElwain's ruling.
If they do not - as was the case in the Kezer case, and the Osage County prosecutor declines to file new murder charges - Helmig would go free.
"I've still got some work to do," said Helmig's defense attorney, Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor. He said he was en route to the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron on Wednesday to share the news with Helmig.
Norma Helmig's body was found along the flood-swollen Osage River, tied to a concrete block, near her home in the central Missouri town of Linn during the 1993 Midwest floods. Hulshof and Fowler, the sheriff, had suggested that Dale Helmig was motivated in part by greed, citing his mother's missing purse to bolster their case.
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, which 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.
Helmig's case has been the subject of a documentary film and several television true-crime episodes, most recently last year on "America's Most Wanted" - a show that typically focuses on catching criminals, not freeing the wrongfully convicted.
O'Brien wants Helmig to be released from state prison pending the state's decision on a possible appeal or the local prosecutor's decision to file new charges. The lawyer won a new trial for Helmig in a federal case alleging jury misconduct in 2005, but that decision was overturned on appeal.
"It is my hope that rational minds prevail on this and Dale be immediately released," O'Brien said.
A hearing on that request is scheduled for Nov. 10.