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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Convicted rapist
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: June 23, 1980
Date of birth: 1952
Victim profile: Charise Kamps, 19
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

review of a decision of the court of appeals July 2005

As far as innocence is concerned, sometimes DNA evidence muddies the water.

Readers of the Malefactor’s Register should know that in order for a person convicted of a crime to prove “actual innocence,” the prisoner must submit evidence that undermines the court’s confidence in the verdict reached by the jury. Appellate rules normally require that this evidence must not have been available to the defendant at the time of the trial.

To many prisoners, DNA testing wasn’t available when they were convicted, giving rise to lots of claims of actual innocence in cases involving biological evidence.

In the case of Ralph Armstrong, a mountain of evidence helped convict him of a brutal rape-murder back in 1981. Some 24 years later, evidence that is invisible to the unaided human eye has caused the Wisconsin Supreme Court to toss out his conviction and sentence of life plus 16 years in favor of a new trial.

The question now is whether the majority in that decision was so blinded by the results of DNA tests that eliminated Armstrong as a source of semen found at the scene that justices ignored long-standing precedent and lowered the bar for inmates who claim exoneration because their DNA was not found at the crime scene:

“The majority opinion is able to side-step our well-established jurisprudence for newly discovered evidence and conclude that Armstrong is entitled to a new trial only by avoiding the crucial analysis of whether this DNA evidence creates a reasonable probability that a different result would be reached at a new trial,” wrote Justice Patience Drake Roggensack in dissent. “Because I conclude that this evidence does not create a reasonable probability that a different result would be reached at a new trial and because I conclude that the real controversy, whether Armstrong raped and murdered Charise Kamps, was fully tried in 1981, I respectfully dissent from the majority opinion.” Armstrong v. State, 2005 Wisc. LEXIS 356 (Dissent).

Justice Louis B. Butler Jr., writing for the majority, found that the DNA results were “relevant to the critical issue of identity” facing jurors, since Armstrong had argued he was somewhere else when the murder occurred.

“This is not evidence that tends to ‘chip away’ at the accumulation of (prosecutors’) evidence. The DNA evidence discredits one of the pivotal pieces of proof forming the very foundation” of the case against Armstrong.

Armstrong, a UW-Madison graduate student who was on parole from New Mexico after serving time for a sodomy conviction and four rape convictions, was found guilty of killing 19-year-old Charise Kamps, whose battered and bloody body was found nude with a bathrobe tie draped across her back in her apartment. A pathologist testified that it was likely she died from strangulation and was beaten with a blunt object.

Charise had been in the company of Armstrong, his brother, Steve, Armstrong’s fiance, Jane May, and others the evening of June 23, 1980. Following a party at May’s and dinner at a Madison restaurant, Armstrong, Kamps and May went to a friend’s house and then back to May’s to watch television. While at the party, several witnesses would testify that Charise and Armstrong were “flirting.” Their recollections, unfortunately aren’t very clear (which one would expect at a party where there was pot, cocaine and alcohol) and are contradictory about who was flirting with whom.

According to testimony at his trial, shortly thereafter, Armstrong and Charise went to her apartment, where they had a drink and listened to records while waiting to complete a cocaine deal.

They then went out, purchased cocaine and then returned to May’s house. At approximately 10:45 p.m., according to the trial testimony of both Armstrong and May, Charise left May’s to return to her apartment.

The latest time Charise was known to be alive was between 11 and 11:30 p.m., when she called a friend in Prairie du Chien. Dr. Robert Huntington, a pathologist, placed the time of the victim’s death at between midnight and 3:30 a.m.

Her body was found when Charise’s boyfriend, Brian Dillman, tried calling Charise from Iowa early in the morning of June 24, 1980, but the phone line was busy. After repeated unsuccessful attempts, he called Jane May and asked her to check on Charise, at which time the woman’s body was found. (About 12:40 p.m. on June 24, 1980.)

She then went to the shop she managed and notified the police of the murder. She also called Armstrong, told him what happened and asked him to come to Charise’s apartment, which he did.

At his trial, Armstrong testified that he left May’s flat for his apartment ten to twenty minutes later but ultimately returned to May’s by 1 a.m. on June 24, 1980. May testified Armstrong could have arrived back at her place as late as 3:30 a.m. but also admitted she had told friends that he had not returned all night. She later explained that this was a false statement, in her words, a “flip remark.”

Prosecutors refuted Armstrong’s story that he was back at May’s apartment by 1 a.m. by calling a pair of witnesses who would have seen or heard Armstrong if he had entered at that hour.

“Terry Fink testified that the musician Jackson Browne was making a promotional film on State Street, including filming outside the Pipefitter. Fink stated that from five or ten minutes before 1:00 a.m. until 1:45 a.m., she was on the sidewalk within ten feet of the front apartment door, observing the film crew and chatting with friends. Fink testified that she never saw Armstrong in the area or enter the apartments during that time,” according to the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s majority opinion.

“Jeff Zuba was the resident manager for the apartments directly above the Pipefitter. … Zuba testified that his apartment door was opposite the door at the top of the front staircase and that he could hear anyone entering or leaving the building. … He did not see or hear Armstrong leave or return to the building.”

The state also presented two witnesses to support its theory that Armstrong went to Charise’s apartment after midnight, instead of before 10:00 p.m., as Armstrong asserted.

The first witness was Laura Chafee. She lived directly below the apartment where Charise lived and heard some music, which seemed to be coming from upstairs, starting at about 12:05 a.m. Detectives from the Madison Police Department had Chafee sit in her apartment and listen to music (Grand Funk Railroad) played in Charise’s apartment. Chafee testified that the sound was similar. Josef Rut, a Madison Police Officer, testified that he removed a Grand Funk album from Charise’s stereo.

Dillman testified that Armstrong had once played Grand Funk Survival for him. Dillman said that a copy of the album was on Charise’s turntable when he accompanied investigators on a walk-through of her apartment several days after her murder. Another witness who worked at the Pipefitter and was at May’s party on June 23, also testified that Armstrong had once told her that Grand Funk Survival was among his favorites and that he played the album for her.

For the second witness, police relied on the hypnotically-enhanced, reluctant testimony of a transvestite named Riccie Orebia, who lived across the street from Charise Kamps and who spent the night of June 23 sitting on his/her (the courts disagree on the correct pronoun to use for Riccie) porch watching the world go by between 10:30 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Although he/she did not have a watch (Orebia had asked a passer-by what time it was and was told 11:45 p.m.), Orebia estimated that at about 12:30 p.m., he/she saw a white car with a black top pass on West Gorham and described the driver as having dark, shoulder-length hair. Orebia saw the car pass a second time and park out of view across the street.

About five or ten minutes later, Orebia saw a person, described as “lean and very muscular,” walk from the direction of the parking lot, cross the street, and enter Charise’s apartment building. About five to ten minutes after that, the same man left the building and headed back the direction he had come.

Orebia testified that another five minutes passed, and the same person crossed the street, entered the building a second time, and then, after staying inside another five minutes, left again this time without wearing a shirt. Orebia stated that five more minutes passed, and the same person ran across the street to the building a third time, stayed for about 20 minutes, and then left running very fast, “shining” as if he were oily. Orebia then observed the black-over-white car speeding away from the parking lot.

Orebia’s description of the man — shoulder-length hair, lean and muscular, and later “shining” — was brought out through hypnosis, a recognized, but very delicate method of interrogating witnesses. The hypnotist must be very careful not to “plant” information or encourage “confabulation,” defined as the construction of false memories.

Unfortunately, some of Orebia’s information may have been tainted, although the hypnotist who conducted the interrogation denies this.

“During his testimony, Kihlstrom presented excerpts from the videotaped session between McKinley and Orebia. Kihlstrom noted that Lombardo was in the room during the session, and that Orebia initially described the suspect as being five-feet, three inches to five-feet five-inches tall, but McKinley suggestively inquired about a height of six feet tall until Orebia agreed with that height,” the Supreme Court Opinion states. “Armstrong’s attorney stated that Armstrong is six-feet, two inches tall.”

Orebia identified Armstrong in a line-up conducted at the scene of the crime, but Armstrong was not cooperative at the line up and had to be dragged to the scene, obviously setting himself apart from the other men (who were wearing wigs, by the way). Riccie Orebia later gave two statements to Armstrong’s attorneys attesting that their client was not the man he/she saw at the crime scene.

“However, at trial Orebia recanted his recantation and stated that he was positive that Armstrong was the person he saw enter and leave Kamps’ apartment building three times on the night of June 24, 1980,” the Supreme Court majority wrote. “Orebia testified that the statements he gave on November 5 and 10, 1980, were purposely untruthful, told as deliberate lies to undermine his credibility as a witness and to hopefully result in his withdrawal as a witness.”

Armstrong voluntarily submitted to a test that revealed traces of blood under his fingernails, toenails and watch band. He told authorities that the blood came from a cut on his knee, as well as the fact that he had engaged in sexual relations with his girlfriend during her menstrual period.

Dillman testified that he loaned Armstrong $500 for the purchase of a car (similar to the one described by Riccie Orebia), and that while speaking with Charise at the party, he overheard Armstrong giving her money and indicating that it was $400 in partial repayment for the loan. May testified that both Charise and Armstrong had told her about the $400 repayment.

However, when police searched the apartment, no money was found.

“The State theorized that after Armstrong murdered Kamps, he stole the $400 from Kamps that he had given her earlier in the evening,” the majority opinion says in the summary of the facts of the case. “In the early afternoon of June 24, 1980, the State established that Armstrong deposited $315 in cash into his bank account. In both the opening and closing statements, the State emphasized the $400 missing from Kamps’ apartment and Armstrong’s $ 315 cash deposit the following afternoon, asserting that both instances together were an indication of Armstrong’s guilt.”

One officer testified at the trial that he and another officer looked in “just about any conceivable place we figured there would be money hidden. Drawers, dressers, cabinets, anything,” including clothing, in Kamps’ apartment without finding the $ 400.

In his defense, Armstrong testified that his brother, Steve, gave him $ 300, in repayment for clothes Armstrong bought him and for Steve’s summer rent.

However, it was the trace evidence: semen from a “secretor” found at the scene — someone whose blood type is identifiable via semen (about 80 percent of the North American male population) and pubic hair consistent with Armstrong’s that was central to the State’s case.

A forensic scientist testified at trial that testified that there are 60 to 70 characteristics she compares between hairs to determine whether two are “similar” or “consistent.” A majority is needed to determine two hairs are “consistent.”

After reviewing the record, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that “despite the closeness of this case, Armstrong has not persuaded us that the newly discovered evidence would reasonably cause a new jury to discredit the incriminating circumstantial evidence.”

Although “a new jury could reach a different verdict,… Armstrong has not shown that the newly discovered evidence clearly and convincingly creates a reasonable probability that the outcome would be different on retrial.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court disagreed, tossing out the need to demonstrate by “clear and convincing evidence” that another jury might reach a different conclusion.



New Trial For Ralph Armstrong

Jul 12, 2005

Reversing decisions of a trial court and the state court of appeals, the Wisconsin Supreme Court today ordered a new trial for Ralph Armstrong, convicted of the 1980 rape and murder of Charise Kamps. While the prosecution clung to its theory that Armstrong was the rapist, it had difficulty explaining new DNA tests that excluded Armstrong as the source of the semen recovered from Kamps. It turned out that the semen belonged to Kamps' boyfriend.

The prosecution nonetheless argued that "head hairs found on a bathrobe belt draped over Kamps' mutilated body ... were similar to Armstrong's" hair, and hey, superficial similarity should be good enough to sustain a murder conviction, right? Wrong. New DNA tests revealed that the hairs didn't come from Armstrong.

The prosecution's shakey case was always controversial, given the decision police made to "reconstruct" events by hypnotizing a witness, and the witness' subsequent flip-flopping testimony.

In the original trial, prosecutors relied on testimony from Riccie Orebia, a transvestite prostitute, who said he saw a man fitting Armstrong's description driving a car that looked like Armstrong's entering and leaving Kamps' apartment several times. Orebia, who underwent hypnosis to help recall the events of the night, later recanted his testimony, then recanted the recantation.

The prosecution rested its case on other mistakes, as well.

The state also made the case that a substance underneath Armstrong's fingernails was blood, but later testing found it was not.

Despite the dramatic new evidence undercutting the prosecution's case, Armstrong won a new trial by only a 4-3 decision. Kudos to Barry Sheck, Jerome Buting, and the rest of the defense team for giving Armstrong the chance to have a fair trial.


Court filing: Ralph Armstrong was framed for Madison murder

Attorneys say another man confessed to the crime, and Dane County prosecutor broke the rules to cover this up

In the mid-1990s, Steve Armstrong confessed to the 1980 murder of a UW-Madison student for which his brother Ralph Armstrong was convicted, according to a new filing with a state appeals court. Police, it says, failed to investigate and the prosecutor took steps to destroy evidence that could have proved Ralph Armstrong’s innocence.

“[T]he state deliberately suppressed and withheld, for approximately the last thirteen years, information that a known third party confessed to the rape and murder of the victim in this case,” states the brief, filed on April 17 by Armstrong’s defense attorneys, Jerome Buting of Brookfield and Barry Scheck of New York. The brief to Wisconsin’s Dist. 4 Court of Appeals calls this confession “exculpatory evidence supporting the claim of Ralph Armstrong that he is innocent of this crime.”

It goes on to say that former Dane County assistant district attorney John Norsetter, Armstrong’s original prosecutor, was personally contacted by one of the individuals to whom Steve Armstrong confessed. But Norsetter, who retired from the office last year, allegedly not only failed to investigate or notify Armstrong’s defense attorneys of this confession, he subsequently ordered a test that destroyed evidence that could have established Steve Armstrong’s guilt.

“To even attempt such a test without telling the court or the defense about the third party’s confession was at best reckless, at worst, a deliberate attempt to manipulate the truth and frame an innocent man,” the filing states.

Ralph Armstrong, now 55, was convicted in 1981 of killing UW-Madison freshman Charise Kamps, 19, in a downtown Madison apartment; he has always maintained his innocence. In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned his conviction, after tests excluded him as the source of crime-scene DNA. The Dane County District Attorney’s Office is preparing to retry the case.

The filing (see attached document) from Buting and Scheck, the latter a nationally known criminal defense attorney and co-director of the Innocence Project at Cardoza Law School, is accompanied by two affidavits, from Texas residents Fawn Elaine Cave and Debbie Holsomback. Both give nearly identical accounts of an encounter with Steve Armstrong that took place in the summer of either 1994 or 1995. (Holsomback recalls that it was 1995; Cave says it was either 1994 or 1995.)

According to both women, they met Steve Armstrong during a visit to Cave’s mother in Roswell, Texas. Steve Armstrong, they say, at one point commented that he knew his brother Ralph was not guilty and was worried what Ralph might do to him when he got out of prison. He said, by way of explanation: “Ralph didn’t do it. I did it.”

Steve Armstong, states the affidavit from Holsomback, proceeded to relate graphic details of the murder, “including that he used a broom on the victim with a sharp object attached.” The filing from Buting and Scheck says these details are “consistent with both the publicly known and unknown facts of the Kamps homicide.”

The affidavit says Steve Armstrong was in Madison at the time, visiting his brother. Both men were initially detained by police. Ralph was subsequently charged with the crime. Steve was released and returned to Texas. He died in Tennessee in July 2005.

Both Cave and Holsomback made efforts to report to authorities what Steve Armstrong had said, despite his having sent them off with a warning that he knew where they lived and forming his hand into a “gun” position. Cave says she contacted the FBI and possibly the police in Roswell. Holsomback says she called the Dane County District Attorney’s Office and spoke with a man named “John” who identified himself as Ralph Armstrong’s prosecutor. The filing identifies this individual as John Norsetter.

Both women say their reports were not taken seriously. Norsetter purportedly told Holsomback that he had no doubt he had convicted the right man.

According to Buting and Scheck, neither Norsetter nor anyone else from the Dane County’s District Attorney’s Office ever called their attention to the fact that it received information about Steve Armstrong’s remarks. They say that while there is some doubt about the state’s obligation to provide this information post-conviction, it had a clear duty to do so since 2005, when Ralph Armstrong’s conviction was overturned and a new prosecution pending, under a case known as Brady.

But the filing states that Norsetter did more than simply not tell Ralph Armstrong’s defenders about this disclosure. It says that in 2006, he violated a court order in ordering a DNA test on a remaining sample of crime scene DNA that effectively destroyed the sample. Moreover, the type of test ordered, a Y-STR test, looked at only a part of the DNA profile that for paternally related individuals would have been the same.

“Mr. Norsetter’s decision to conduct DNA tests that he knew would not be able to distinguish brothers from each other, when he knew that Armstrong’s brother had confessed to the crime, without telling the court or the defense about the confession, was nothing less than reckless and outrageous conduct,” the brief states. “In the process of using this deceptive ploy, he destroyed [the] semen stain which contained the more discriminating nuclear DNA that could have distinguished Ralph from his brother…”

Buting and Scheck ask the appeals court to order further proceedings on these new disclosures. “In addition,” they say, “because of the legally and ethically serious nature of this evidence, the Court should take immediate custody of the DA’s trial and post-conviction file in this case, copy it and seal it for safekeeping until further independent review can determine the true extent of this or any other Brady, due process or ethical violations. It also asks for all documents regarding Steve Armstrong to be “promptly disclosed to the defense.”

A call left at the Madison home of John Norsetter was not immediately returned. Dane County DA Brian Blanchard says he cannot comment, as he has not yet spoken with Norsetter about the matter and has no information beyond what was provided in the filing with the appeals court.

On April 24, the state responded, opposing the motion by Armstrong’s attorneys to allow in this new evidence. The response brief from Assistant Attorney General Sally Wellman says the affidavits from Cave and Holsomback do not establish that Norsetter deliberately withheld evidence or even that Norsetter was contacted by Holsomback. It called the affidavits “mere allegations of facts, allegations which are unconfirmed and unproven.”

Wellman’s brief goes on to assert that the allegations in Armstrong’s motion “have absolutely no relevance” to his pending case. It says it would be “wholly improper” for the appeals court to allow the record to be supplemented with this new information, but concedes that it is within the court’s power to send the case back to circuit court for an evidentiary hearing.

Armstrong, the state argues, cannot be granted any additional relief beyond a new trial, which the Supreme Court has already ordered. Finally, it opposes the request to secure the case file, saying no due process or ethical violations have been established.




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