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Charles Palmer

Other Illinois DNA Cases
On August 28, 1998, 32-year-old William Helmbacher was found murdered in his apartment in Decatur, Illinois. Helmbacher, an attorney, had been beaten to death with a hammer.

A day earlier, Helmbacher had reported to police that his apartment had been burglarized and that $20 in change, a glass beer mug, and bottles of unopened beer had been stolen.

On September 9, 1998, a groundskeeper at the Millikin Homestead, the home of the founder of Millikin University in Decatur, found a white trash bag near the flagpole on the grounds. He tossed it into the back of his station wagon and didn’t look inside until two days later when he was looking for a tool and came across the bag.

He intended to toss it into the trash, but looked inside first. He called police when he discovered Helmbacher’s business cards as well as a beer mug. The police found a fingerprint on the bag belonging to Ray Taylor, who lived in a different apartment in the same building as Helmbacher.

During questioning, Taylor said that he and his cousin, 43-year-old Charles Palmer had burglarized Helmbacher’s apartment the night before the murder. Taylor told police that Palmer went back to the apartment the next night to try to steal more property, but was confronted by Helmbacher and killed him.

On September 22, 1998, police arrested Palmer on charges of first-degree murder and burglary.

Palmer went to trial in Macon County Circuit Court in April 2000 and the prosecution sought the death penalty. Taylor testified that Palmer told him that he went back to the apartment on April 27 and “had to beat that dude to death.” Taylor said that Palmer told him he only got away with $11. Taylor also told the jury he saw Palmer twice on the day of the murder and that Palmer had changed his clothes. Taylor admitted that he had been charged with burglary and that the prosecution had agreed to dismiss the charge in exchange for his testimony.

An Illinois crime lab technician testified that three drops of blood were found inside shoes recovered from Palmer’s residence. The analyst testified that DNA testing identified the blood as Helmbacher's blood. The technician admitted that the shoes were not recovered until three weeks after the murder and that the initial tests performed on stains on the outside of the shoes were negative for the presence of any blood.

Palmer’s fingerprints were not found in Helmbacher’s apartment or on the murder weapon, a claw hammer recovered near Helmbacher’s body.

Although the crime lab was asked to retest Palmer's shoes--the order to the lab said, to "take them apart and check again," no tests were performed on scrapings of Helmbacher’s fingernails or four hairs found in Helmbacher's hand, a Decatur police detective admitted.

Palmer testified and denied any involvement in the crime. He also testified that other people wore the shoes in question besides himself. He denied burglarizing Helmbacher’s apartment the day prior to the crime.

On April 27, 2000, the jury, after 13 hours of deliberation and for a time reporting they were deadlocked, convicted Palmer of first-degree murder and acquitted him of burglary. Palmer elected to have the trial judge, instead of the jury, decide his punishment.

In May 2000, Judge Jerry Patton declined to impose the death penalty and instead sentenced Palmer to life in prison without parole. Palmer told the judge that he was innocent of murder and had never broken into Helmbacher’s apartment. He turned to the prosecutors and said, “I guess you needed a scapegoat and I guess I was it.”

The Illinois Appellate Court and the Illinois Supreme Court denied Palmer’s appeals. In 2006, he filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus claiming his trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to seek DNA testing of the evidence. A federal judge denied the petition because it was filed too late.

In 2011, the Illinois Innocence Project successfully petitioned for DNA testing of the evidence. DNA tests performed on fingernail scrapings and hair found in Helmbacher’s hand identified DNA that was not Palmer's DNA and was not Helmbacher’s DNA. Taylor also was excluded as the source of the biological evidence.
A private DNA analysis company, Independent Forensics, retained by Palmer's legal team, reported in 2011 that the DNA analysis performed by the Illinois crime lab on Palmer's shoes, although considered reliable at the time, was "not nearly sufficient to unambiguously identify one person from all others." The firm's Dr. Karl Reich noted that under guidelines current in 2011, the testing performed on the shoes "would not be sufficient to perform commercial DNA-based paternity testing, let alone provide the scientific basis for identifying an individual beyond a reasonable doubt."
John Hanlon, executive director and legal director of the Illinois Innocence Project, filed a post-conviction petition seeking for a new trial.

On November 16, 2016, Macon County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Steadman granted the motion and vacated Palmer’s conviction.

On November 23, 2016, Hanlon and Lauren Kaeseberg, the legal director of the project’s Chicago office, stood with Palmer as the prosecution dismissed the charge and Palmer was released. The prosecution revealed that Taylor had been contacted and said he would refuse to testify at a retrial.

Macon County State’s attorney Jay Scott issued a statement saying “The totality of the evidence in this case shows that another person was involved in the physical attack upon William Helmbacher, which led to his death. For that reason, justice demands that the case against Charles B. Palmer be dismissed.”

In November 2017, Palmer filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Decatur seeking compensation.

In 2018, Palmer sought a state certificate of innocence, but that request was denied in 2019. Palmer appealed, and on April 15, 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court ordered the circuit court to grant Palmer his certificate, paving the way for him to receive $239,306 in state compensation. The court said Palmer was only required to prove his innocence on the charges for which he was prosecuted, rather than for every possible theory of the crime.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/4/2016
Last Updated: 10/12/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1998
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:43
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*