On the afternoon of May 5, 2000, 49-year-old attorney Richard Armitage was found severely beaten in his Kansas City, Missouri law office. Two days later, Armitage died of his injuries. Authorities believed he had been beaten repeatedly with a blunt instrument, though no weapon was found.
Armitage’s partner, 50-year-old Richard Buchli II, who had found Armitage, was brought in for questioning and two weeks later, he was charged with first degree murder and criminal use of a weapon, after forensic tests showed Armitage’s blood on Buchli’s shoes and clothing. An analysis of telephone records showed that Armitage was on the phone until 2:02:05 p.m. and a review of a building surveillance tape showed Buchli leaving the building at 2:05:52 p.m.
On June 7, 2000, two weeks after Buchli was charged, Paul Hoglen, a maintenance worker at the building that housed the law firm, contacted authorities to tell them he was in his truck outside the building and saw Buchli leave at 2:10 p.m. He remembered the time because he had to be home by 3 p.m. and was watching the clock.
Buchli went on trial in Jackson County Circuit Court in July 2002. The case was circumstantial and turned on whether Buchli had enough time to beat Armitage, dispose of the murder weapon, take the elevator down from the 13th floor law firm offices and leave the building when he was seen departing on the surveillance video.
The prosecution presented a segment of the surveillance video showing Buchli departing the building and returning about a half hour later. A detective testified that based on his investigation, the times depicted on the surveillance tape were about three or four minutes earlier than the actual time and that when the tape showed Buchli leaving at a few seconds before 2:06 p.m., the time was really closer to 2:10 p.m.
Hoglen testified that he arrived at work at 10:30 a.m. He said that in the afternoon he was outside the building, sitting in his truck and talking to a man who was standing next to it when he saw Buchli leave at 2:10 p.m. and drive away in his Jeep. Hoglen said that he was still in his truck when he saw Buchli return about a half hour later. Hoglen said he looked through the windshield and saw Buchli drive into the parking garage, come out, smoke a cigarette on the loading dock and then go back into the building.
Forensic analysts testified that the victim’s blood was found on Buchli’s shoes and clothing.
The prosecution argued that Buchli killed Armitage because he was in desperate financial straits. They presented financial records showing that Buchli was several hundred thousand dollars in debt, had taken out a life insurance policy of more than $100,000 on Armitage, and had deposited into his own bank account checks for legal services that were made out to Armitage.
Buchli testified and denied that he killed Armitage. He said that after he returned to the law firm, he went into Armitage’s office and found him beaten and bloody. He said he got blood on his hand when he felt Armitage’s neck for a pulse. He said he must have gotten Armitage’s blood on his shoes and clothing because he then clapped his hands in an attempt to rouse Armitage.
Forensic analysts testified for the defense that the clapping was the explanation for the presence of Armitage’s blood on Buchli’s clothing and shoes.
When Buchli’s attorney decided to play the entire video surveillance tape for the jury, he discovered it actually started at 7 a.m.—even though the prosecution had told the defense and the trial judge that the original tape had been destroyed and that they were relying on a portion of the tape that spanned about an hour beginning just prior to Buchli’s departure from the building. The defense objected that the entire tape had not been turned over prior to trial, but elected not to investigate further and did not show any of the tape.
Buchli was convicted by a jury on July 30, 2002 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
After his appeal was denied, Buchli filed a motion to vacate his conviction on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld exculpatory evidence, that he had received an inadequate legal defense and that Hoglen had committed perjury.
In 2006, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Sandra Midkiff vacated the conviction and ordered a new trial.
Midkiff ruled that the prosecutors had willfully withheld the entire surveillance tape. The tape, the judge ruled, showed that Hoglen had committed perjury—“a blatant fabrication”—when he testified about seeing Buchli leave the building and return, because though his truck was visible on the tape, there was no one standing next to it when Buchli left the building. Moreover, the tape showed that before Buchli returned, Hoglen had already driven away and thus could not have seen him return.
The judge ruled that because the prosecution had failed to disclose the tape and because the defense—after it learned the tape existed—had failed to investigate, Buchli had been deprived of a fair trial. The tape could have been used to show that Hoglen was untruthful.
The judge ruled that the defense had failed to investigate Hoglen as an alternate suspect and failed to discover that Hoglen was a convicted felon, had keys that provided access to offices, including Armitage’s office, and had been the subject of harassment complaints by female employees. Armitage himself had complained to management about Hoglen, the judge said. Further, Armitage had access to a wide variety of blunt instruments in his capacity as maintenance worker.
The judge ruled that the prosecution knew that Hoglen was lying because the prosecution had seen the entire videotape, but chose to allow the false testimony because without it, the time frame for Buchli to have committed the murder was so narrow that it was impossible for him to have killed Armitage.
The judge noted that Buchli’s attorneys had developed evidence that Hoglen knew about a baseball bat that was in Armitage’s office prior to the crime. The bat was not present after the attack on Armitage and was never found. The defense also discovered that Hoglen was seen on surveillance tapes from May 6—the tape after the crime—going into the building and going to the law offices on the 13th floor—when he claimed at the trial that he was leaving on vacation the day after the crime.
The judge’s ruling said that Hoglen fit the prosecution’s profile of the killer—that Armitage knew his attacker and the attacker had easy access to the law office. The judge also noted that a fingerprint and bloody boot print found at the scene were never identified, investigated or explained.
“Paul Hoglen had the motive, means and opportunity to commit the attack on Mr. Armitage, and engaged in a substantial amount of suspicious conduct, yet none of this evidence was investigated by the State or discovered by Mr. Buchli’s counsel,” the judge said.
The judge also noted that the prosecution’s claim that the times on the surveillance tape were earlier than real time was contradicted by the actual tape. The tape ended at 5:39:50 p.m., the judge noted, and a detective testified that he recovered the tape at 5:40 p.m. on the day of the crime.
The judge also harshly criticized the prosecution for falsely claiming in closing argument that Armitage had been killed while he was on his computer purchasing perfume for his wife. The argument was based on a crime scene photograph that showed Armitage’s computer screen displaying a website for the sale of perfume.
During the hearing on the motion to vacate Buchli’s conviction, his attorneys presented evidence that Armitage used a dial-up modem to connect to the Internet. Because Armitage only had one phone line, they argued, he could not have connected until after he ended his phone call at 2:02:05 p.m. Further, Buchli’s lawyers showed that at times, as much as several minutes were required to establish an Internet connection through the dial-up modem because the computer was old and extremely slow.
The prosecution admitted during the hearing that they had investigated Armitage’s computer usage at the outset of the investigation in an attempt to establish a timeline of the murder, but abandoned it after learning that the Internet provider had already destroyed the usage records. The prosecution also admitted that Buchli’s trial lawyer had never been told of that investigation.
The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in 2007. Buchli was released on bond in January 2008 and the case was scheduled for trial in January 2009. Nodaway County Circuit Court Judge Roger Prokes was brought in to oversee the retrial after all Jackson County judges recused themselves. The retrial was delayed, however, when the prosecutor assigned to the case was removed after failing to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense in another case, in what the judge in that case ruled was a “fraud upon the Court.”
The case was scheduled for trial in January 2011 and Prokes issued a 30-page discovery for the prosecution, setting a deadline for turnover of all evidence by July 20, 2010. When the deadline passed and the prosecution had not complied, the defense filed a motion seeking sanctions, alleging that the prosecution was still continuing to withhold evidence—including 22 boxes of financial documents that had never been disclosed.
In September 2010, Judge Prokes agreed with the defense and barred all of the prosecution’s evidence from a retrial, citing a “10-year pattern of discovery abuse.” The judge said that after nearly three years of trial preparation, the prosecution still could not “articulate with any certainty what their evidence will be or even what documentation it has in its possession. The rules have been ignored, this Court has been ignored and judicial resources have been squandered.”
The state appealed and in December 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Prokes’ decision.
On May 4, 2012, the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges. In April 2013, Buchli, who had been disbarred after his conviction, was reinstated to practice law.
– Maurice Possley