The 29-year-old murder case against Ralph Armstrong appeared in jeopardy Thursday after a judge found that a Dane County prosecutor failed to notify the defense of a reported confession by Armstrong's brother in 1995.
Reserve Circuit Court Judge Robert Kinney also found that Assistant District Attorney John Norsetter violated a court order in 2006, resulting in destruction of key DNA evidence.
Speaking at the end of the two-day hearing, Kinney said there's no doubt the now-retired Norsetter failed to disclose a call from a woman who said Stephen Armstrong had confessed to the 1980 rape and murder of UW-Madison student Charise Kamps, 19.
"I'm very uncomfortable with the idea ... that the prosecutor unilaterally decides, when he gets a confession, not to turn it over," the judge said.
Kinney said there's no doubt Norsetter violated a court order that required him to notify the defense any time evidence in the case was to be handled. The testing ordered by Norsetter resulted in destruction of a semen stain that had already been tested and did not match Ralph Armstrong. The defense had hoped to use the stain to exonerate him.
But that may now be impossible. Stephen Armstrong died in 2005 and was cremated, leaving behind no DNA to compare.
Character witnesses described Norsetter as an unfailingly honest and reasonable prosecutor who's dedicated to justice. Armstrong's attorney, Jerome Buting, painted him as a prosecutor who resorted to unethical means to protect the most important conviction of his 29-year career. Norsetter retired in 2007.
'Where do we go from here?' That conviction was overturned in 2005 by the Wisconsin Supreme Court after DNA testing failed to link the now 56-year-old Ralph Armstrong to the crime. His attorneys are seeking to have the case dismissed. Armstrong, who has consistently maintained his innocence, has been in prison since his conviction, including nearly four years awaiting a possible retrial in Dane County.
The question, Kinney asked rhetorically, is "Where do we go from here?"
"The remedy of outright dismissal seems extreme," the judge said. "On the other hand, on some level, if there was an obligation (to disclose the confession) we have to enforce it."
Thursday's hearing featured dramatic testimony from Debbie Holsomback, the Fort Worth, Texas, woman to whom Stephen Armstrong reportedly confessed in 1995. It also included the revelation that a friend of the victim told Madison police shortly after the 1980 murder that Kamps planned to have a date with Stephen Armstrong the night she was killed.
Testifying Wednesday and Thursday, Norsetter repeatedly stated that he didn't pass along the alleged confession to Buting because he believed it wasn't credible. Prosecutors are required to reveal evidence that points to a defendant's innocence or mitigates his guilt. Kinney's decision, scheduled for July 31, likely will hinge on whether he believed Norsetter was legally obligated to reveal that confession.
Norsetter testified that he only vaguely recalls receiving the call. But the prosecutor said he must have concluded that the details relayed by Holsomback didn't fit the evidence in the case. Norsetter said he took no action to investigate the woman's report.
Buting produced a Madison police report recounting an interview with Elizabeth Cornelius, a friend of Kamps, soon after the June 24, 1980, murder. Kamps was found dead in her Downtown apartment after a night of partying with Ralph Armstrong and others.
Cornelius told police that Kamps called her the night she was killed.
"Didn't she (Cornelius) call and say she was going out on a date with Ralph's brother?" Buting asked.
Reading the police report, Norsetter responded, "That's right."
The alleged confession Under questioning from attorney Keith Belzer, Holsomback, 44, described her encounter with Stephen Armstrong in 1995. She testified that she met him at a house in Roswell, N.M., when she and a friend, Fawn Cave, arrived to retrieve Cave's son, niece and nephew, who'd been staying with their grandmother. Cave and the Armstrong brothers are distant relatives.
"He looked at Fawn and said, 'You remember my brother, Ralph? He's looking for me and he wants me dead.' All I'm thinking of is, 'Oh my God, what have I gotten into?'" Holsomback said.
She said Stephen Armstrong told them the ongoing DNA testing would show Ralph was innocent. She quoted Stephen Armstrong as saying, "It's gonna come back that Ralph didn't do it, because I did."
Wiping away tears, Holsomback continued, "Then he went into detail about the victim, called her names and said she got what she deserved. He said that she enjoyed it and that he would've continued if ... she hadn't died."
Holsomback said she immediately scribbled down what Stephen Armstrong had said in a book of crossword puzzles. She testified that she and Cave, Cave's mother and the mother's boyfriend fled with the children and that Stephen Armstrong chased them down the driveway.
The next day, they left a motel and returned to the home to retrieve the children's clothes and belongings. She said Stephen Armstrong threatened Cave by fashioning his fingers into a gun and saying, "I know where you live, so I'll be seeing you."
Holsomback said the day after she got back to Texas, she and Cave made a three-way call to Norsetter. He assured them the right person was behind bars. She said the file she made with the crossword book and notes from her call to Norsetter were tossed out by her soon-to-be ex-husband in 2000. Said Holsomback: "I had this feeling where this day would come when all this stuff would come back and bite somebody in the tush."