13 June, 2009

America's Most Wanted Changes Its Tune for Dale Helmig Story

The Fox Network's perennial ratings-grabber, America's Most Wanted, broke with long-standing tradition two weeks ago, airing an episode that laid bare the wrongful conviction of Missouri's Dale Helmig. Dale had been convicted of murdering his mother in the early '90s, but key evidence that would likely have cleared him was never presented to the jury.

Most Wanted has built a reputation on its hard line, pro-law-enforcement stance, so it was surprising to see its host, John Walsh, discuss Dale's case without the typical level of approbation for the system. Coming from him, remarks about the system's imperfections and Dale's innocence were downright shocking.

From what parallel universe did this new John Walsh sneak over, and what's he done with our John Walsh — the one we've come to rely upon for curt narration of all those melodramatic, soft-focus re-enactments?

I happen to know Dale. Not well, mind you, but we reside in the same housing unit, here at Crossroads Correctional Center, and say hello to each other in our frequent passings. When I got wind of Most Wanted's interview with Dale and forthcoming show about his case, I shook my head. My own experience with media attention (see "Shedding Light on Pitch Darkness," 18 August 2007) has been enough to make me wary. The sensational angles and out-and-out misrepresentations committed by so-called journalists seem to be closer to the rule than to the exception. "Be careful," I warned him, but the hourlong program that resulted was a breath of fresh air.

The fact is, as much as the public may hear about cases of innocent men and women in prison, the seemingly endless trickle of exonerations, there are as many as a hundred thousand wrongful convictions in the US (by some estimates) that no one hears about. We sit in our cramped cells and hold fast to the hope our latest motion or petition to the courts will be the one that finally sets us free. Meanwhile, story upon story about police and prosecutor misconduct makes the headlines, and nothing seems to change.

An 18 February article in the Kansas City Star describes former prosecutor (and recent candidate for Missouri governor) Kenny Hulshof's abysmal emerging record for "error," which includes his "too readily embellish[ing] arguments with his own opinions, or with facts outside the court record." This from a shining example of prosecutor-turned-politician? Just imagine what sorts of treachery is being implemented by those with less stellar reputations to uphold. Based on similar reports that have recently come to light, Hulshof is far from an isolated instance.

Then there's the 18 May issue of USA Today, which cites the case of a man convicted of rape in 1985, who appeared to be on his way to freedom when another man confessed to the crime. In 1999, however — four years after this new evidence was presented to the court, and nine years before DNA evidence would formally clear him — Tim Cole died in prison. What was he still doing there? Why does the system allow for this kind of grievous error (or, for that matter, subterfuge)? What does it say about our country, about ourselves, that we let it continue?

I applaud John Walsh and the producers at America's Most Wanted for the exposure they've given this important issue. I hope it helps Dale, whose case is about to go before the Supreme Court. One episode about one man, though, is not enough. It's my hope that Most Wanted continues to take a stance against this particular breed of injustice. Maybe others will follow suit, which will be good, because victims aren't only created by crime: too often they're created by the people entrusted to uphold the law, who are too eager to see that someone — anyone at — all pays the price.