Criminal Justice

This Week in Innocence: Why the Hell is Kenny Hulshof Still Practicing Law?

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Last week, Missouri Circuit Court Judge Judge Warren McElwain declared Dale Helmig innocent of killing his mother in 1993. Helmig was convicted in 1996. In his ruling, McElwain declared Helmig to be "the victim of a fundamental miscarriage of justice."

Many factors contributed to Helmig's conviction, including an inept public defender, false police testimony, and snitch testimony from inmates. But McElwain went out of his way to criticize the behavior of former Missouri prosecutor Kenny Hulshof.

In his opinion, McElwain cited numerous instances where either Hulshof or Schollmeyer presented testimony that was later shown to be false and that they should have known was false. One section is titled "Kenny Hulshof knew or should have known that the testimony presented was false that Dale Helmig tacitly admitted killing his mother."

In another section, McElwain states that Hulshof made improper use of unsupported testimony that Dale Helmig and his mother had been in a fight in which Helmig allegedly threw hot coffee in his mother's face. That altercation, at a restaurant, actually involved Norma Helmig and Ted Helmig, her estranged husband.

"Even though the prosecution could not find a witness to substantiate this allegation, that did not stop them from trying to put the unproven and very inflammatory fact before the jury," McElwain wrote.

This is the second case in two years in which Hulshof has been cited by a judge for misconduct that helped convict an innocent person. In February 2009, Missouri Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan declared Joshua Kezer innocent of the 1992 murder of college student Angela Mischelle Lawless. Kezer was convicted in 1994. From the A.P. report last year:

[Callahan's] 44-page decision included a stinging rebuke of Hulshof, saying he withheld key evidence from defense attorneys and embellished details in his closing arguments.

Other than a statement Tuesday in which he affirmed his belief that Kezer is guilty, Hulshof has declined to comment.

The state's prosecution was based on the testimony of another suspect in Lawless' death who said he saw Kezer at a nearby convenience store on the night of the killing. But he gave conflicting testimony and three jail inmates who claimed Kezer had confessed to the killing later acknowledged lying in hopes of getting reduced sentences.

Back in 2008, the A.P. found five other cases in which Hulshof was accused of prosecutorial misconduct. So what has happened to Hulshof? For starters, he parlayed his tough-on-crime record as a prosecutor into a run for Congress, where he served for six terms. In 2008, he was the GOP nominee for governor of Missouri. He nearly became the president of the University of Missouri at Columbia. Currently, he has offices in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. as a lobbyist for the white shoe law firm Polsinelli Shughart.

A couple weeks ago, a Reason commenter wrote that convicting an innocent person of murder ought have a similar effect on a prosecutor's career that, say, amputating the wrong limb would have on a doctor's. That sounds about right. At minimum it demonstrates a degree of negligence that ought to bar a prosecutor from ever prosecuting a case again. He has destroyed an innocent person's life, prolonged suffering for the victim's family and, of coruse, allowed the actual murderer to get away with the crime. If it can be shown that a prosecutor's deliberate misconduct contributed to a wrongful conviction, he should lose his license to practice law.

Hulshof has done it twice. That we know of. And it's not like no one in Missouri knew about his aggressiveness. Yet he not only gets to continue practicing law as a jet-setting lobbyist, thanks to absolute immunity he'll never have to pay a dime of the fat salary those aggressive tactics won him to Joshua Kezer or Dale Helmig.