On June 24, 1980, the body of Charise Kamps, a 19-year-old University of Wisconsin student, was found sexually assaulted and murdered in her Gorham Street apartment in Madison, Wisconsin.
The body was discovered by Jane May, who had been partying with Kamps the night before. Kamps was found naked and face down in her blood-soaked bed. She had been strangled, beaten and had injuries to her anus, vagina and throat apparently from insertion of a blunt object.
Among those questioned by police was Ralph Armstrong, May’s fiancé, who was a 27-year-old student at the university and had been released from prison in New Mexico in 1979 on a sodomy conviction and four rape convictions.
Armstrong told police that he, May, Kamps and others had been at Namio’s restaurant the night before, then went to May’s apartment where they drank and did drugs, including cocaine. He said that he had been at Kamps’ apartment earlier, but returned to spend the night with May.
Police also questioned Armstrong’s brother, Steven, who was visiting him at the time, but he was discounted as a suspect and released.
Ralph Armstrong was charged with the murder of Kamps after a witness, Riccie Orebia, identified him. Orebia was sitting on his porch on the night of the murder. With the aid of hypnosis, he identified Armstrong as the man he saw enter and leave Kamps’ apartment about the time of the murder. (At Armstrong’s trial, Orebia appeared dressed as a woman.)
Armstrong was convicted by a jury in March 1981 and sentenced to life plus 16 years in prison.
His appeals were denied.
After DNA testing became available as a means of proving innocence, Armstrong began petitioning for testing of the evidence in the case.
In 2001, a judge refused to grant him a new trial despite DNA evidence on two head hairs found on the belt of a bathrobe lying on Kamps’ body. At Armstrong’s trial, a crime lab analyst said one of the hairs was similar with Armstrong’s hair and the other was consistent with Armstrong’s hair.
The DNA tests showed neither hair was Armstrong’s. However, a judge ruled that the evidence would not have changed the verdict.
But in July 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed Armstrong’s conviction, saying that the DNA evidence was sufficient to support a motion for a new trial.
Before Armstrong could be retried, however, defense lawyers sought to dismiss the case entirely.
In April 2007, Armstrong’s lawyers contended that the prosecutor in the case, Dane County Assistant District Attorney John Norsetter had violated a court order by sending evidence in the case—a semen stain on the bathrobe—for DNA testing. As a result, the evidence was consumed and was unavailable for testing by the defense.
Moreover, two new witnesses surfaced—both of whom said that after Armstrong was convicted, his brother, Stephen, had confessed to them that he had committed the crime. By then, Stephen Armstrong was dead.
Both witnesses said they had reached out to Norsetter to tell him of Stephen Armstrong’s confession, but he refused to believe them. More significantly, he never told Ralph Armstrong’s defense attorneys.
On July 30, 2009, a judge dismissed the charges against Armstrong, based on his findings that Norsetter had violated a court order and essentially destroyed potentially exculpatory biological evidence, and that Norsetter had failed to inform the defense of Stephen Armstrong’s confession.
On August 19, 2009, the state said it would not appeal the decision and the charges were dismissed. Armstrong, who was wanted for parole violations in New Mexico, was transferred to prison there. His parole was revoked in September 2010 and he was ordered to resume serving the 30- to 150-year sentence he had received for the sex crime convictions in 1972. In 2013, he was released on parole again.
He brought a civil rights suit against the prosecutor on his case, John Norsetter, and two crime lab workers, Karen Daily and Dan Campbell. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on immunity grounds, but a U.S. District Judge denied the motion. In May 2015, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.
The appeals court held: "Armstrong alleges a shocking course of prosecutorial misconduct. According to the complaint, the prosecutor quickly fixated on Armstrong as the murderer and sought to build a case against him by any means necessary.
"Those means included destroying potentially exculpatory evidence from the crime scene, arranging for the highly suggestive hypnosis of an eyewitness, contriving suggestive show - ups for identification, and concealing a later confession from the true killer that was relayed by a person with no apparent motive to fabricate the report," the appeals court said.
"Finally, the prosecutor enlisted state lab technicians to perform an inconclusive DNA test that consumed the last of a sample that could have proven Armstrong’s innocence and pointed to the true killer. If these allegations are true — and some are based on the state court’s factual findings — the prosecution of Armstrong was a single - minded pursuit of an innocent man that let the real killer to go free," the appeals court ruled.
– Maurice Possley