America's Most Wanted to Feature Innocence Case

Kenny Hulsof Dale Helmig
(Former Congressman and state proseuctor Kenny Hulsof and Dale Helmig)

Don't miss America's Most Wanted on Fox this Saturday Night. Instead of trying to find a murderer, this time the show is trying to free a wrongly convicted one.

“America’s Most Wanted,” scheduled for broadcast at 8 p.m. Saturday on KQFX-TV (Fox 38), will devote an hour to the investigation and trial of Helmig, now 53, who in 1996 was convicted of murdering his mother. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. The show is designed to capture bad people and put them away,” said producer Dave Bolton. “This case jumped to our attention because it looked like a huge miscarriage of justice because the bad guy who did the crime was still out there and the innocent guy was put in prison for a crime he did not commit.”

Helmig was convicted of killing his mother. The evidence against him, all circumstantial, was beyond thin. His conviction was overturned in a federal habeas petition (opinion here), but the state appealed. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Dale's conviction and the Supreme Court denied cert. He remains in prison today, having served 12 years of a sentence to life without parole.[More...]

The prosecutor in Dale's case was Republican former Congressman Kenny Hulshof, who unsuccessfully ran for Governor last year. An issue was made in the campaign of numerous questionable homicide convictions when he was a prosecutor and Dale's was one of them.

This will be the third feature show/film on Dale's case. The first was a TNT documentary in 2000, Was Justice Denied? in which a former prosecutor and I spent weeks in Missouri re-investigating the crime, interviewing witnesses, family members, the Judge, defense lawyer and yes, even Hulsof.

The second, and far more comprehensive one, was "A Matter of Innocence: The Story of Dale Helmig," by the Innocence Project of Missouri.

I hope the third time's a charm, and AMW is able to attract the attention of someone who might have knowledge that would prove Dale's innocence. Some prior TalkLeft coverage is here.

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    that was pretty much (none / 0) (#1)
    by cpinva on Wed May 27, 2009 at 11:19:15 PM EST
    how scott peterson was convicted: thin circumstantial evidence. that, and a jury evidentally looking for book deals.

    these guys may all be guilty as sin, but i like my gruel served with substance, not mere speculation and innuendo.

    As a practical matter (5.00 / 0) (#8)
    by Bemused on Thu May 28, 2009 at 10:57:37 AM EST
     most murder trials where the defense is "I didn't do it"  are based on circumstantial evidence.

      Unless one commits a murder in the presence of people other than the victim, then by definition the case against a defendant will be an entirely cirumstantial one. Only if there are witnesses to the killing is a case based on direct evidence (and direct evidence is often less than reliable because eyewitness identification can often be mistaken).

      Now, of course, some circumstantial evidence is better than other circumstantial evidence (e.g., the presence of the defendant's DNA at the scene of a crime for which he lacks an explanation; a murder weapon found in the defendant's presence shortly after a murder) but the notion that any  case is  are weak because it relies on circumstantial evidence is simply  not true.

      I think people tend to confuse "physical evidence" which is a type of circumstantial evidence with "direct evidence" which refers only to testimony from witnesses recounting events they perceived.

      If circumstantial evidence sufficient to convince a jury unamimously of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was not considered sufficient to sustain a conviction then EVERY murder not committed in the presence of a witness would be beyond prosecution unless there was a valid confession with some corroboration.


    See, that really bugs me (none / 0) (#9)
    by jbindc on Thu May 28, 2009 at 11:06:34 AM EST
    Maybe I learned it incorrectly, but in my Evidence class (taught by a federal judge), we were told that circumstantial evidence carries the same weight as direct evidence in a trial, but yet I hear on TV (and even by some lawyers) that someone was convicted "only on circumstantial evidence."  Um, hello?  MOST evidence in any trial is circumstantial - so should very few people ever be convicted?

    I don't really know (none / 0) (#11)
    by Steve M on Thu May 28, 2009 at 11:15:43 AM EST
    what it means for evidence to "carry the same weight."  I mean, they're both equally admissible, but the weight of any individual piece of evidence is for the trier of fact to determine, right?

    Yes (none / 0) (#12)
    by jbindc on Thu May 28, 2009 at 11:27:49 AM EST
    But jurors (and lay people) shouldn't automatically "discount" evidence because it's circumstantial.  you hear it all the time - "He was convicted only on circumstantial evidence" (which may be true), but many people think that circumstantial is not necessarily "good" evidence. I mean, forensic evidence like blood, fingerprints, and DNA are examples of "circumstantial" evidence, but to most people, they would think that's pretty good stuff.

    i think he is referring to this (none / 0) (#13)
    by Bemused on Thu May 28, 2009 at 01:49:45 PM EST
    There are two types of evidence from which you may find the truth as to the facts of a case -- direct and circumstantial evidence.  

    Direct evidence is the testimony of one who asserts actual knowledge of a fact, such as an eyewitness. Circumstantial evidence is where one fact or a chain of facts gives rise to a reasonable inference of another fact. If one fact
    or group of facts on the basis of common sense and common experience leads you logically and reasonably to infer other facts, then this is circumstantial evidence.

    Circumstantial evidence is no less valid and no less weighty than direct evidence provided that the inferences drawn are logical and reasonable. In a criminal case where a defendant's state of mind is at issue, where there are questions of what the defendant intended or what his purpose was, circumstantial evidence is often an important means of proving what the state of mind was at the time of the events in question. Sometimes it is the only means of proving state of mind.

    While you should consider only the evidence, you are permitted to draw such reasonable inferences from the testimony and exhibits as you feel are justified in the light of common experience.

    In other words, you may make deductions and reach conclusions that reason and common sense lead you to draw from the facts which have been established by the evidence.

    The law makes no distinction between the weight to be given to either direct or circumstantial evidence. Nor is a greater degree of certainty required of circumstantial evidence than of direct
    evidence. Do not be concerned about whether evidence is `direct evidence' or `circumstantial evidence.' You should consider and weigh all of the evidence that was presented to you.


    However , a minority of jurisdictions still give an instruction the essence of which is that when weighing whether the government has met its burden of proof through circumstantial evidence, a jury should vote to acquit unless the circumstantial evidence serves to negate any reasonable inference inconsistent with guilt.

      Now, to a lawyer and some laymen, that sounds like  a restatement of the reasonable doubt standard, but most jurisdictions have abandoned that instruction precisely because of belief it confuses a jury and leads it to believe a higher standard is placed on circumstantial evidence.


    direct evidence (none / 0) (#15)
    by rea on Thu May 28, 2009 at 03:28:49 PM EST
    The single most common cause of wrongful convictions is bad eyewitness identification testiomony--which of course is direct, not circusmtnantia, evidence.

    snitch testimony (none / 0) (#16)
    by Bemused on Thu May 28, 2009 at 03:48:04 PM EST
      which is most often of the direct variety is another species of often dubious evidence.

      Physical evidence, a species of circumstantial evidence, while often the strongest evidence is also very often open to questins concerning its authenticity and even more frequently the subject of highly contested competing interpretations both in terms of the "science" andthe probative weight to prove the fact for which it is relevant.

      Confessins are not always reliable either.

      In short, the problem with much of what is written here is that it when one puts it all together it seems questionable as to whether the authors believe anyone should ever be convicted of anything. This perspective tends to severely undermine the persuasiveness of the writings among anyone who does not share that perspective which is about 99.999999999% of the world.

      We do abetter job advocating when we remember we defend people not crime.


    Example (none / 0) (#10)
    by jbindc on Thu May 28, 2009 at 11:10:51 AM EST
    If you look outside and see water droplets falling from the sky, that is direct evidence that it is raining.

    If you see a man walk into a building, with a wet umbrella, and water droplets on his coat, that is circumstantial evidence that it is raining.

    Someone above said it best - "direct evidence" incorrectly gets confused with "physical evidence".


    We're seeing a sudden (none / 0) (#3)
    by JamesTX on Thu May 28, 2009 at 03:54:51 AM EST
    interest in innocence cases by a traditional hunt'em-and-hang'em press here locally. Is this a sign of changing public attitudes? I know some people think the press follows the public. I tend to think the reverse is true, so I suspect this interest in justice is all some kind ploy.

    I think the press follows the public (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Jeralyn on Thu May 28, 2009 at 04:22:24 AM EST
    attitude in these things and I'm hoping the era of "guilt sells" is on the wane. It's great to see shows focus on the innocent and wrongly convicted for a change.

    Who knows, maybe instead of another season Law and Order next year we'll get Law & Disorder about prosecutors who step over the line. Sure have been a lot of them coming to light lately.


    One minor point (none / 0) (#6)
    by nyjets on Thu May 28, 2009 at 07:39:18 AM EST
    Law & Order, and the various spin off for that matter, have shown prosectors stepping over the line at times and at times being punished for it. They do not do it often, but they have done it.

    Point well taken (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Thu May 28, 2009 at 04:20:06 AM EST
    I fixed it, he's a wrongfully convicted murderer in lots of peoples's eyes.

    For those of us who are not attornies (none / 0) (#7)
    by me only on Thu May 28, 2009 at 09:19:55 AM EST
    what remedy(ies) are left for Dale?

    Having read the links now (none / 0) (#14)
    by Bemused on Thu May 28, 2009 at 02:43:33 PM EST
      I'd support a new trial because it sounds as if he may not have received a fair one. The juror misconduct in reviweing naterial extrinsic evidence abetted it seems by court personnel alone should have been enough for a new trial. The ex parte communications leading to removal of a judge is also very troubling and perhaps the case best illustrates who incredibly low the standards are for criminal defense lawyers to be considered "effective."

      That said, I see nothing  in any of the links that makes a case of factual innocence. He deserves a fair trial and that might result in a jury finding reasonable doubt, but nothing thrown out there by his habeas lawyers or the websites seems to show facts exist which are necessarily inconsistent with his guilt.

      Is there more to this case than being shown in these links?