KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Dale Helmig, whose decade-old murder conviction was overturned just months after Illinois State University students released a documentary film about the case, could leave prison as early as today.
But the case isn't over. Prosecutors are appealing and say they will retry him if they lose.
U.S. Magistrate Judge David Noce agreed last week to release Helmig on $100,000 secured bond while the Missouri attorney general appeals his ruling. Noce said Helmig had been a model prisoner.
"It's just incredible," said Helmig's brother, Rich Helmig. "We've been waiting for this for so long."
"We hope it happens. It's really great news," said John McHale, the ISU professor who produced the film, led by students Kris Racine and Jeff Blackburn and the ISU student activist group the ISU Innocence Project.
Helmig, 49, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1993 death of his mother, Norma, whose body was found tied to a concrete block in the Osage River near her Linn home.
Helmig's attorneys claim the murder trial was tainted by an incomplete police investigation, an inept defense and a prosecutor looking to score political points in an election battle for Congress.
That now-former prosecutor, Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, has rejected any link between the campaign and trial.
But in late September, Noce reversed the conviction after hearing arguments that a highway map jurors used during deliberations contradicted evidence they had seen in court while considered whether Helmig had time to dispose of the body.
McHale said he believes the student filmmakers' focus on that particular map played a role in the overturned conviction. The ISU project also "did an excellent job" of showing no opportunity existed for Helmig to kill his mother, that his initial defense was inadequate, and that he had no motive.
Between May and the September decision, the ISU group's film "A Matter of Innocence," was screened in several large Missouri and Illinois cities, he said.
"It really raised the visibility of the case there," he said.
Even if the state's appeal is rejected, Osage County prosecutor Amanda Grellner, who was not in office during Helmig's first trial, has said she will retry him.
Still, McHale said he and his students see the possible Monday release as good news.
"What's uplifting is that Judge Noce seems to think it's unreasonable to keep in prison," during this appeals process, said McHale.
For the students involved in the ISU Innoncence Project, the September conviction reversal validated their efforts, said the professor. "They've been very careful in what cases they're looking at. … This shows them their voices can make a difference in a democracy. Their voices do have an impact, they are heard," said McHale.