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 has a federal civil rights lawsuit pending in Wisconsin against the prosecutor in his case, John Norsetter.
– Maurice Possley