Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Absurd Case of Dale Helmig: Part III

In my original post of this series, I discussed the incredibly lame evidence on which Dale Helmig was convicted of killing his mother, Norma. There was no forensic evidence. There was no eye-witness evidence. Dale Helmig was convicted because he could not prove he was elsewhere at the time of the murder, because he had recently quarreled with his mother over money, because he acted suspiciously, and because he had inside knowledge of the murder.

In my previous post, I explained that Dale Helmig's father, Ted, was a far more likely suspect. Ted Helmig could not prove he was elsewhere at the time of the murder. Ted was nearing the end of hostile divorce proceedings with Norma. He benefited economically because Norma died before that divorce was final. If Dale acted suspiciously, then Ted certainly did as well. Finally, of the two, Ted and only Ted could have known of evidence found in Norma's purse, evidence that exculpated Dale.

The police, prosecution, defense attorney, trial judge, and a whole bunch of appellate judges all whiffed on this case. Unfortunately, that doesn't surprise me. Our voracious judicial system provides scant protection for the innocent culled from the herd.

The jurors also whiffed on this case. In one sense, however, I have some empathy for them. I know that critical information never found its way into the jury room. I know that false information made its way in there instead. I know also that the prosecution played to the emotions of the jurors. I know that unskeptical jurors were manipulated by people who manipulate for a living.

Let's consider some examples.


Police and prosecutors love confessions. I won't even bother to defend that claim. Instead, I'll simply repeat it. Police and prosecutors love confessions.

In the Central Park jogger case, the police extracted four rape confessions implicating five people. DNA testing after the trials excluded all five who were convicted, and identified the actual rapist.

In the Norfolk Four case, the police extracted four murder/rape confessions implicating seven people. DNA testing before the trials excluded all seven, but four were nonetheless convicted.

In the Michael Ledford case, the police extracted a confession that Michael Ledford killed his one-year-old son via arson, though his confession was falsified by the evidence found at (and not found at) the scene.

If the police can't manage a signed confession, they can always claim the defendant confessed to them in private but denied the confession in public. Such seems to have been the case with Johnny Frank Garrett.

If the police don't want to sully themselves that much, the prosecution will gladly use someone who is pre-sullied. They'll bring in a snitch to say that the defendant opened his soul and confessed behind bars.

Such was the case with Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham refused to confess, so the prosecution brought in a snitch. That snitch was given a get-out-of-jail-early card by the prosecutor, though the prosecutor denied there was ever any deal.

Such was also the case with David Wayne Spence. Spence refused to confess, so he prosecutor brought in seven snitches. One turned out not to have even shared time with Spence. Three others recanted and explained how their testimony had been purchased with cigarettes, TV privileges, alcohol, and conjugal visits in the privacy of the prosecutor's office.

If the prosecution is unable to obtain a confession in any fashion yet described, they might be forced to rely on a tacit confession. It's not as good as a false or trumped up confession, but it's not bad.

Such was the case with Byron Case. When asked about the murder of Anastasia Witbolsfeugen, he twice said "We should talk about this." In the transcription of that conversation, his response was twice changed to "We shouldn't talk about this." That was ruled a tacit admission and presented as evidence against him during his trial. He's serving life without parole.

The tacit admission of Dale Helmig was even more subtle. The officer who interrogated Dale Helmig testified, right there in front of the jurors, that Dale Helmig never denied killing his mother. Here's the trial transcript.
Q. Sir, at any time during these contacts and particularly during this conversation that you've just shared with us, did Dale Helmig ever deny killing Norma Helmig to you? 
A. No sir, he did not.
The prosecutor was clearly on board with such testimony, because he asked the question that elicited the testimony. Clearly, the prosecutor felt that such testimony would help persuade the jurors to convict Dale Helmig of first-degree murder.

(To cover my all my bases, I hereby deny killing Norma Helmig.)

The use of the non-denial tacit admission would have been bad Constitutional form, even if the testimony about that non-denial had been true. That's right: even if it had been true.

It turns out that the very officer who sat there and told the jury Dale Helmig never denied killing his mother, wrote otherwise in his police report of that interview:
"[Helmig] stated that he did not murder his mother and that the sheriff was after him."
During questioning at a recent evidentiary hearing, he answered differently than he did in front of the jury.
Q. Yes or no, did Dale Helmig ever deny killing his mother?
A. Yes.

Suspicious Behavior

The prosecution told the jury that Dale Helmig demonstrated his guilt by not being present at his mother's house while the authorities were searching for her. All the other members of the family were there, the prosecution argued. Why not Dale?

The suggestion was that Dale wasn't anxiously waiting at his mother's house to learn of her condition because he already knew she was dead. I don't know if that logic seems flawed to you. It certainly seems like a pile of processed Purina to me. The jury, however, ate it up. And so did the appellate court. They cited that suspicious behavior specifically when summarizing the State's evidence against Helmig.

What the jury didn't hear was that Dale did not wait at his mother's house with the rest of the family because the police asked him not to do so. Dale was scheduled to have his first visitation with his children in a year. At the evidentiary hearing, but not at the trial of course, a sheriff's deputy acknowledged that he advised Dale not to have the children at the mother's home at that time. The house was a potential murder scene.
A. I told him I didn't think it was a good idea to bring his kids down there.

Inside Knowledge

The prosecution argued that Dale Helmig must have murdered his mother because Dale suspected too soon that his mother had been murdered. Even before her body was found, he told a girlfriend "You know, somebody got crazy drunk and killed my mother."

According to the prosecution, the only way Dale Helmig could have had that insight at that time was if Dale himself was the murderer.

What the prosecution didn't tell the jury was that the statement was taken out of context. What the prosecution didn't tell the jury was what Helmig also told that same girlfriend at the same time. The prosecution did not tell the jury that Helmig said:
"I think my dad has something to do with this. I think my dad did it."
Ted Helmig, Dale's father, had a history of abusing Norma. She had obtained a court order to keep Ted away from her. Despite the court order, Ted assaulted and threatened her. That brings us to …

The Altercation

During trial, the law enforcement officer who supervised the investigation testified that Dale Helmig had an altercation with Norma at a restaurant soon before she was murdered. The prosecution introduced such testimony, presumably, because they believed it would increase the chance the jury would convict. Recently, at the evidentiary hearing, that supervising law enforcement officer conceded he had no basis for his testimonial claim.
Q. What is the source of this information?
A. I can't provide you with that.
Q. Can you name a witness?
A. No sir, I can't.
Did the officer simply make the altercation up out of whole cloth? Seemingly not.

Recall, those of you who read the second post in this series, that it was the husband Ted, not the son Dale, who confronted Norma Helmig in the restaurant shortly before her murder. It was the husband, not the son, who threw coffee in her face and told her he was "going to put an end to all this."

Instead of simply fabricating evidence out of whole cloth, it seems as if the supervising officer simply used evidence against the more likely suspect as evidence against less likely suspect. He didn't actually lie. He simply was confused about who they had decided to convict of murder.

Not only is it likely the jury was fed perjured testimony, it's likely that there was a conspiracy to so feed them.
Conspiracy: an evil, unlawful, treacherous, or surreptitious plan formulated in secret by two or more persons. 
At the evidentiary trial, while Dale Helmig was then serving his fourteenth year in prison, the supervising officer was asked if he had coordinated his trial testimony with the prosecutor. The officer explained that the two of them did not go over the testimony he was to give, at least not line by line. He did concede, however: "Obviously I talked to the prosecutor."

I take that to be a "yes."

There's nothing wrong, of course, about talking with the prosecutor or defense attorney before trial. However, if you plan to perjure yourself and the attorney goes along with your plan, that is a conspiracy.


Though I feel some empathy for the jury, I find I am more disappointed in their behavior than in the State's behavior. Bees gotta buzz, and birds gotta fly. Police arrest, prosecutors prosecute, and judges …. well, judges used to be prosecutors.

Juries, however, are mandated by our Bill of Rights to form the last feeble line of defense against a State all too eager and all too capable of crushing those who act suspiciously.

Or those who seem to know too much.

Or have a motive, however imaginary.

Or can't prove where they were.

The jury failed Dale Helmig. They stole from him his presumption of innocence. They relieved the State of its burden of proof. They violated their oath and tarnished the faith put in them by our founders.

And for that, I'm deeply disappointed.

I'll wrap this sorry story up in my next post. Perhaps on Christmas Eve.

The conclusion to this four part series is here.