MADISON (WKOW) -- Citing the prosecution's violation of a court order on evidence and its obligation to disclose a possible confession, a judge Friday dismissed a rape and murder case against Ralph Armstrong in the 1980 killing of UW-Madison student Charise Kamps, and set the stage for Armstrong's possible release from prison after nearly three decades behind bars.
In Dane County court, judge Robert Kinney said the prosecution's handling and destruction of DNA evidence in the case in recent years, coupled with former assistant Dane County district attorney John Norsetter's failure to disclose a possible confession to the murder by Armstrong's brother to defense attornies, left Armstrong with no chance to defend himself or try to show his brother had committed the crimes. Kinney also cited the death and cremation of Armstrong's brother, Stephen Armstrong, as a factor heightening the damage done by the mishandling and destruction of DNA evidence.
"The facts of this case are as unusual as a five hundred year flood," Kinney said. "But the prejudice to the defendant was not an act of nature."
Kinney referred to the violation of a court order requiring notice to Armstrong if prosecutors planned additional testing of DNA evidence.
Kinney said prosecutors tested and used up evidence without Armstrong's knowledge, and contaminated remaining DNA samples through mixing. Kinney also said Norsetter should have told Armstrong about a Texas woman's 1995 call to Norsetter. The woman claimed Stephen Armstrong had confessed to her he raped and killed Kamps.
"A confession to murder by a person we know was present with the victim the night she died, to suppress that kind of evidence is really outrageous and shocking," Armstrong's attorney, Jerome Buting said.
Buting said the mishandling of DNA evidence in the case and the involvement of state crime lab analysts cast a pall on the integrity of the crime lab's work.
Kinney said despite the order requiring both sides of the case to be involved with any DNA evidence matters, a prosecutor met with an analyst, directed work, and work was done outside of standard laboratory conditions.
"The prosecutor, by having private dealings with them, treated them like partisan witnesses. When results unfavorable to the state came in, and the prosecutor directed more testing, what message was communicated?
A spokesman for the Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said evidence submitted by both prosecutors and defendants to the state crime laboratory is treated uniformly and fairly.
Armstrong was convicted of Kamps' rape and murder in 1981. Several years ago, the state supreme court threw out the conviction, after Armstrong was ruled out as the source of DNA on the belt of the victim's bathrobe, and sent the case back to Dane County circuit court.
The case's prosecutor, assistant Dane County district attorney Robert Kaiser, declined comment, but told the court an appeal of the dismissal is being planned.
Retired prosecutor Norsetter also declined comment to 27 News, citing the potential appeal.
Armstrong has a previous sex crime conviction in New Mexico, and could be imprisoned for violating probation, but Buting said Armstrong's probation revocation was based on his Wisconsin murder conviction and could be dropped.
Armstrong will remain in state prison pending the Dane County district attorney's decision on appeal.
Armstrong was convicted in 1981 in the death of 19-year-old Kamps in a downtown Madison apartment. Kamps was beaten to death and the night before she died, Kamps partied with friends, including Armstrong.
At the time, Armstrong was considered an obvious suspect: he was one of the last people to see her alive and was a convicted felon on parole after serving seven years in prison in New Mexico for sexual assault.
Armstrong has always maintained his innocence and says DNA tests prove he was not the killer.
At his original trial, prosecutors focused their case on two hairs taken off Kamps' bathrobe belt lying on her body. Experts told the jury that microscopic tests showed one hair was consistent, the other similar to Armstrong's hair. And prosecutors told the jury that semen on the bathrobe was consistent with Armstrong's blood type. And a witness who said he saw Armstrong going in and out of Kamps apartment the night of the murder sealed the case.
He was convicted of 1st degree murder and 1st degree sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison.
With help from the Innocence Project, DNA tests were performed on the evidence and the results excluded Armstrong. But appeals courts denied his request for a new trial, because even though the evidence now doesn't prove he did it, it also doesn't prove he did not do it.
In 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned the conviction, but Armstrong remained behind bars.
Then this April, the case headed back to the courtroom, where Dane County prosecutors attempted to re-try Armstrong.
Then-Dane County prosecutor John Norsetter testified at that hearing, and when asked if anything had changed his opinion in the past 29 years, Norsetter replied "no."
As current prosecutors prepared for a new trial, a possible bombshell hit: Two women claim Ralph Armstrong's brother Steve confessed to Kamps' death. They called Norsetter back in 1995, but felt they were dismissed.
"I don't recall being told anything that lit a light and said 'woah,' we may have the wrong person," he said at Wednesday's hearing.
Steve Armstrong died in 2005.