Investigative journalists helped free a Missouri man who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. But can the media continue to play its watchdog role?
The battle to free someone wrongly convicted of a crime can be long and arduous. Typically, it is waged by attorneys and journalists, with a supporting cast of family members, innocence advocates and others willing to go the distance to help someone who is locked away for years or even decades.
The case of Dale Helmig of Missouri is an example.
Convicted and imprisoned for the 1993 murder of his mother, Norma, Helmig was freed last December after Dekalb County Missouri Circuit Court Judge Warren McElwain found “clear and convincing evidence” of his innocence. But Helmig might well still be in prison—if it had not been for the tenacious efforts of investigative reporters in Missouri and elsewhere in the country.
Ironically, the kind of journalism that helped free Helmig is threatening to disappear, as pressures mount on newsrooms around the country.
Journalists were not the only players in the 15-year battle that began with Helmig's conviction in 1996. A pro bono legal team which managed to enlist the help of a regional innocence project as well as Helmig's brother Richard were also instrumental.
And Helmig’s story may not be over. Although he was released five weeks after Judge McElwain's ruling, which also cited “very significant new evidence directly tying” Helmig's father, Ted, to the crime, prosecutors appealed. The Missouri Supreme Court this week dismissed the appeal, but the state still has 180 days to decide whether to retry him. As of this writing, no decision has been announced.
Helmig's pro-bono attorney, Sean O'Brien, credits widespread press coverage of the case, as well as new evidence, for the judge's crucial decision in 2010 to hold a habeas corpus hearing
“It is rare for a judge to look at habeas corpus cases,” O'Brien says. “I think that [the press] did get Judge McElwain's attention,” he says.
After Norma Helmig's body, tethered to a concrete block, was found in the flood-engorged Osage River, about 10 miles east of Jefferson City, MO, police immediately focused their investigation on her son Dale?although no physical evidence or eyewitness accounts linked him to the crime.
They contended that he and Norma had argued over a phone bill, and that he knew details of the crime that implied his guilt.
According to O'Brien, regional news reports initially accepted the prosecution's version of events and “reported it like, 'hey, this is a great victory for justice.' ''
New Evidence Uncovered
But it wasn't until 1999, three years after Helmig was convicted, that the media began to focus on discrepancies in the case and conduct independent investigations. Helmig's brother Richard was also a crucial factor. Richard, who recruited O'Brien to work on the case, was “a one-man workforce in trying to get help for Dale,” the lawyer recalls. “Exonerations happen largely where the prisoner has somebody like Rich on the outside fighting for them, who won't let the case go away, won't take no for an answer.”
Richard was also instrumental in attracting the attention of the popular TV program “America's Most Wanted,” whose profile of his brother in 2009 led to a witness coming forward with key evidence.The growing press attention helped to create a “critical mass,” observes Missouri-based freelance journalist Terry Ganey, who played an essential role in pressing the Helmig case and keeping it in the public eye on the regional level. Journalist Molly Frankel, while working for O'Brien's team of investigators, uncovered some of the evidence that was used in the habeas corpus hearing. Investigations conducted by documentary filmmakers also unearthed facts which became available to the Helmig defense team.
“At each stage,” Ganey noted. “more peoples' consciousness (was) awakened.”
One of the documentaries was produced by a company called High Road Productions, which had a development deal with TNT cable network to do a pilot about wrongful convictions. The program, “Was Justice Denied?,” aired on June 20, 2000.
“After that show aired, things started turning around,” said Richard Helmig, who gave a copy of the program to anyone who might be influential in helping his brother.
Another documentary about the case was made by John McHale, an associate professor in the Communications Department at Illinois State University, who founded an innocence project there after making a documentary as a University of Missouri-Columbia Ph.D. student about an innocent man condemned to death row for a 1985 murder.
Generating Public Awareness
McHale learned of Helmig's case through Sean O'Brien and directed “A Matter of Innocence: The Story of Dale Helmig,” produced with the Illinois State University Innocence Project. The film, released in 2005, generated public awareness and support of Helmig.
Publicity from the Illinois State University and TNT documentaries garnered attention from journalists, legal and criminal justice professionals, innocence advocates and concerned citizens. The films led to more press coverage that the Helmig brothers could use in their fight to exonerate Dale.
Terry Ganey became aware of Helmig's plight in the summer of 2005.
Then a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he wrote a three-part series on Dale, published in October. Ganey left the Post-Dispatch shortly afterward, but found the Helmig story so compelling that he promised himself he would continue to write about it whenever possible.
He went on to cover the case for the Columbia, Mo., Daily Tribune from 2005 to 2010, and later as a freelancer for the St. Louis Beacon , an online news site, and the Unterrified Democrat, a newspaper in Helmig's former home town of Linn, Mo.
“If newspapers do not highlight such injustices, who will?” Ganey said. The press's highest calling is its watchdog role over what happens in courtrooms,”
Richard Helmig sent a package including both documentaries to Fox Network's America's Most Wanted in 2005. Host and executive producer John Walsh and co-executive producer Steve Katz launched their own lengthy investigation, resulting in the only America's Most Wanted episode ever to question the conviction of an incarcerated person.
Before that episode, which aired in 2009, the program helped bring people into law enforcement custody and send them to prison, not the other way around.
Explaining their decision to profile Helmig, Katz explained, “A huge consideration when we look at every case that comes before us is, can we actually help move this case forward and get some justice? That's really the driving force behind the stories that we pick.”
Fox recently announced the cancellation of the series.
The support of a pro-law enforcement program like America's Most Wanted did much to bolster favorable public opinion for Helmig, as well as to generate more press coverage.
America's Most Wanted followed up their initial coverage with two updates on the case, one on Helmig's July 2010 habeas corpus hearing, held in Maysville, Mo., about 60 miles northeast of Kansas City; and the second covering Helmig's release, which was aired March 5, 2011.
Working Without Pay
As media attention grew, O'Brien and the Midwestern Innocence Project in Kansas City worked tirelessly without pay for years on Dale's behalf. Ken Blucker, a senior staff attorney there who served as co-counsel to O'Brien in Helmig's habeas corpus case, said law students, volunteers, and staff interviewed witnesses, collected and reviewed documents, visited with Dale and helped research and draft court documents.
While the Helmig case was being re-investigated, reports of wrongful convictions were on the rise.
In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan declared a moratorium on executions of death row inmates because of the “shameful record of convicting innocent people.”
He noted that since 1977, 12 death row inmates had been executed and 13 others were exonerated. In Texas, in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed for killing his two children in a house fire. Though experts said after the trial that the fire was not arson, Texas officials let the execution proceed rather than admit the possibility of error.
The New York City-based Innocence Project says there have been 271 post-conviction exonerations through DNA evidence in United States history, 80 of which were murder cases. Seventeen of those people were sentenced to death before DNA proved them innocent and led to their release. The average sentence served by exonerees was 13 years.
Steve Weinberg, a freelance writer, author, and University of Missouri School of Journalism professor, has long encouraged news media coverage of possible wrongful convictions.
“I learn about a new wrongful conviction case almost every week of the year, year after year after year,” he says. “That means the phenomenon is greater than an occasional aberration.” Weinberg led a research team that analyzed 11,452 cases in which appellate courts reviewed alleged prosecutorial misconduct. The 2003 project, “Harmful Error: Investigating America’s Local Prosecutors,” found that appellate judges reversed convictions or reduced sentences in more than 2,000 cases.
In “Innocent Until Reported Guilty,” an article in Miller-McCune magazine in 2008, Weinberg recommended that newsroom managers restructure crime coverage and keep spreadsheets of all felony charges (or, in cases of limited resources, only felonies such as murder, rape and assault). The records would conceivably help reporters to track cases and spot inconsistencies.
Said Weinberg: “Unless journalists get better at covering the justice system, many criminals will continue to go unpunished, free to murder or rape or rob again. So investigating wrongful convictions is not—as perceived by too many police, prosecutors and judges—an assault by soft-on-crime bleeding hearts. Rather, it is an attempt to serve law and order, to improve the administration of justice, and to foster faith in the criminal justice system.”
Overall, however, media resources available for investigative reporting of criminal justice appear to be declining.
The number of stories about possible wrongful convictions is not keeping pace with that of potential cases reported to innocence projects.
O'Brien has seen the impact of this fallout.
“It is unusual for the media to spend the kind of money that it takes to do the kind of investigative journalism that Terry Ganey, for example, has done on Dale's case,” said O'Brien, a 30-year legal veteran.
“It takes individual investigative reporters to get interested in cases and then invest the time and the shoe leather into going out and looking into the case.”
Lisa Marcus recently completed an M.A. in Media Communications at Webster University in St. Louis, where she works as a freelance writer. She welcomes comments from readers.