A Wisconsin Circuit Court Judge dismissed rape and murder charges against Ralph Armstrong on Friday based on the misconduct of a Dane County prosecutor who concealed evidence of Armstrong’s innocence. Armstrong was convicted in 1981 of the rape and murder of fellow University of Wisconsin-Madison student Charise Kamps. He has always maintained his innocence.
Armstrong’s conviction was overturned by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2005 after DNA testing on hair and semen excluded Armstrong as the perpetrator. Prosecutors sought to retry Armstrong, and he has been in custody awaiting retrial for four years.
At a hearing in April, a woman testified that she called Assistant District Attorney John Norsetter in 1995 to report that Armstrong’s brother, Stephen, confessed to the crime. Stephen Armstrong was visiting his brother at the University when the crime occurred and was interviewed by police as a possible suspect immediately after the crime.
Even though Armstrong’s case was on appeal when Norsetter learned of the confession in 1995, he never told defense attorneys about the phone call and never pursued the lead. Stephen Armstrong has since died.
In 2006 – after initial DNA testing had led the state Supreme Court to order a new trial in the case, and 11 years after Norsetter learned about Stephen Armstrong’s confession – a court order was in place requiring prosecutors to notify the defense any time evidence in the case was moved or going to be analyzed. Norsetter violated that court order by subjecting evidence in the case to additional DNA testing.
Those tests, which were conducted illegally, used up the biological evidence and prevented it from being available for further testing. Moreover, the type of DNA testing Norsetter ordered would not have distinguished genetic material between male relatives, rendering it useless to the defense since the principal alternate suspect was Ralph Armstrong’s brother.
In his ruling on Friday dismissing the case against Armstrong, Judge Robert E. Kenney said that the prosecutor’s actions “stemmed from a series of conscious decisions that had very adverse consequences.”
Read the entire decision
“This is a particularly chilling case of prosecutorial misconduct,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck. “Even after the state Supreme Court threw out Ralph Armstrong’s conviction based on evidence of his innocence, the prosecutor continued to withhold yet more evidence of his innocence.” The Innocence Project got involved in Armstrong’s case in 1993 and has worked on the case ever since with Wisconsin attorneys Jerome Buting and Keith Belzer.
Prosecutorial misconduct has played a role in scores of wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA testing – and, in many cases like Armstrong’s, prosecutorial misconduct has also prevented innocent people from being exonerated much sooner. Among the 241 people nationwide who were exonerated through DNA testing, fully 25% cited prosecutorial misconduct in their appeals or civil lawsuits. In 38% of those cases, prosecutors were accused of withholding evidence that could prove innocence.
The Innocence Project has worked on cases in which prosecutors withheld evidence implicating the true perpetrators, solicited false testimony from informants, deliberately mistreated or destroyed evidence, and more. Those prosecutors are rarely held accountable; some remain working as prosecutors, while others have gone on to become judges.
On Thursday, Mississippi Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter pled guilty to lying to FBI agents who were investigating him in a corruption case. In the 1990s, when DeLaughter was a local prosecutor, he handled a rape and murder case involving Cedric Willis. Willis was arrested for raping a woman and, four days later, killing a man. Police and prosecutors always knew the same man committed both crimes – and they were certain that man was Willis. When DNA testing proved Willis didn’t commit the rape, DeLaughter pressed ahead with the murder case against him and convinced a judge to withhold from the jury any information about the related rape for which Willis was proven innocent. Willis served 12 years in prison before he was exonerated.
TalkLeft reports on the DeLaughter guilty plea
, noting: “This might be seen as karma in action, except that DeLaughter probably won't serve 12 years, and he certainly won't serve it under the nightmarish conditions that Willis had to endure.”