Monday, December 20, 2010

The Absurd Case of Dale Helmig: Part II

In my previous post, which you should read first if you are to understand this one, I wrote of the evidence used to convict Dale Helmig of the first-degree murder of his mother. There was, as you recall, no forensic or eyewitness evidence. Dale Helmig was convicted solely on the basis of having opportunity, motive, inside knowledge of the crime, and suspicious behavior.

With respect to opportunity, he was alone at some point within the broad time-of-death range estimated by the police. Also, he could have traveled over the bridge where a hydrologist determined the victim's purse had been thrown into the river.

With respect to motive, the state claimed his long and well-established loving relationship with his mother had turned sour just before the murder and that his mother was going to cease giving him money.

With respect to his inside knowledge, he correctly predicted that his mother would be found in her nightgown, that she would not be found in the Gasconade River, and that her keys would be found in her purse.

With respect to his suspicious behavior, he seemed less concerned about his mother's disappearance than did his other relatives. Also, he acted nervously when the family was informed his mother's body had been found, and he acted nervously when he was being interrogated after his arrest. Most significantly perhaps, when (during interrogation) he was told his mother was listening from the great beyond and that he should speak to her, he said "I'm sorry, I'm just sorry."

It seems as if any half-way competent defense attorney should have been able to convince at least one of twelve jurors that the evidence presented by the state did not constitute proof beyond a reasonable doubt. I'm sorry to say that such a thought would put too much confidence in both defense attorneys and juries.

I’m certainly not suggesting all defense attorneys and all juries are incompetent. In fact, I argue elsewhere in this blog that of the major players in our justice system, juries are the least responsible for wrongful convictions. And I know directly and indirectly of many outstanding defense attorneys. I am, however, arguing that in the Helmig case, both the defense attorney and the jury whiffed.

The defense theory in the Helmig case was that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the mother had been murdered, and the jury could not therefore rationally find the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Given that the mother was found in the Osage River, bound by a nylon cord, and tied to a rock, I suggest that was a lame defense theory.

I have no high regard for the jury in this case, either. Even if the defense theory was lame, the jury should have acquitted. Even if the defense attorney wore a bright orange wig, a bulbous red nose, and big floppy shoes, the jury should have acquitted. Even if the defense attorney spent the entire time eating Grape-Nuts and sucking a Slurpee, the jury should have acquitted. The defendant has an opportunity to defend, but has no constitutional obligation to do so. The prosecution bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense has no burden to disprove anything. The jury should have acquitted.

Had the State of Missouri merely wanted another conviction based on incredibly weak evidence, there were others they could have selected. They could have, for example, pursued Dale Helmig's father, Ted Helmig.

Ted, like Dale, had the opportunity to murder Norma Helmig. He also was alone at the time of the murder. Lots of people were alone. I may have been alone. I can't today prove otherwise.

Ted, unlike Dale, had a real motive for killing his soon-to-be ex-wife. Dale and his mother allegedly quarreled over a $200 phone bill. Ted and his wife, by comparison, were in the middle of a hostile divorce. Ted would have to pay Norma $733 per month, indefinitely. That represented about half of Ted's military pension.

Also, Norman Helmig was murdered soon before the divorce was to be final. Ted collected $5000 in life insurance, and $19,000 from her estate. Had she been murdered after the divorce was finalized, her estate would have defaulted to her children.

Ted, unlike Dale, actually did act suspiciously. Ted confronted Norma at a restaurant, told her he was "going to put an end to all this," and threw coffee in her face. He did so in spite of a court order that he not have contact with her, based on his earlier abusive treatment.

Ted was also "facing a contempt citation in his divorce over his conversion of marital property."  Allow me to translate. Ted was selling jointly-owned property that was to be divided as part of the divorce settlement. Ted was keeping the money.

Ted "acted strangely at his wife's funeral."

Finally, and most suspiciously I guess (in the eyes of our justice system), Ted invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when asked to give a statement to the sheriff.

With respect to inside knowledge, it turns out Ted may have had the most inside knowledge of all. Six months after Norma was murdered, tied to a rock, and thrown in a river, her purse was found about 1.5 miles downstream from the Missouri River bridge. Norma's keys were in the purse, just as Dale had predicted. The police took particular note of those keys. They took no particular note, however, of the cancelled checks in the purse.

Much more recently, Molly Frankel, a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, did take note of those checks. Working as an investigator for Helmig's current attorney, Sean O'Brien, she developed information from two bank officials that normal bank processing procedures would have caused the cancelled checks to be mailed to Norma Helmig almost two weeks after she was murdered.

Though the State of Missouri explained to the jury that the purse was evidence of Dale Helmig's guilt, the purse in fact all but proved his innocence. Had the police and prosecutors bothered to investigate, they would have realized that the purse implicated the husband, not the son. Ted Helmig acknowledged that he continued to collect his wife's mail for about two weeks after her death. He denies putting the canceled checks in the purse and throwing the purse in the river.

Perhaps there's more to this story.

Perhaps Wednesday.

Part III is available here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Question: Was Mr. Helmig given a "jury trial," or a "trial by jury" pursuant to the 6th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution? If Mr. Helmig was given a jury trial, then the judge controlled the jury's decision. So, it may not be the fault of the jury that Mr. Helmig was convicted. It may, in fact, be the judge that was responsible for this travesty of justice.

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