Wisconsin State Journal

Armstrong Hearing, Day 1

Felt confession call was not credible, Armstrong's prosecutor says

April 1, 2009

John Norsetter
Former Asst. DA John Norsetter

John Norsetter, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Ralph Armstrong for the murder of UW-Madison student Charise Kamps in 1980, testified Wednesday that he didn’t recall until recently that he’d gotten a telephone call in the mid-1990s from a Texas woman who claimed Armstrong was innocent.

"The only thing that I clearly remember is (saying) we convicted the right man," the now-retired prosecutor said.

During a hearing in Dane County Circuit Court, Norsetter said he didn’t recall who the caller had claimed confessed to murdering Kamps but that he found the information not credible. Norsetter said he now knows that person who allegedly confessed was Stephen Armstrong, Ralph Armstrong’s brother.

Debbie Holsomback, the woman who called Norsetter, and Fawn Cave, another woman who said she heard Stephen Armstrong’s detailed confession, are expected to testify today.

Ralph Armstrong, 56, is fighting efforts by Dane County to try him again for the rape and murder of Kamps. The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down his conviction in 2005, saying that DNA testing had failed to tie him to the crime. Ralph Armstrong has consistently denied killing and raping Kamps, then 19.

At the time of the June 1980 slaying, both were students at UW-Madison. Armstrong was a graduate student with a criminal record that included multiple convictions for sexual assault that prosecutors said were similar to the attack on Kamps. Stephen Armstrong, who was visiting from Texas at the time of the murder, was interviewed by police but discounted as a suspect.

The two-day evidentiary hearing seeks to determine what Norsetter and others knew about the alleged confession of Stephen Armstrong, who died in 2005.

The defense also is attacking Norsetter’s actions in 2006 that resulted in a key piece of DNA evidence being used up during testing — months after the Supreme Court overturned Armstrong’s conviction.

Norsetter acknowledged that he never notified the defense of the alleged confession nor did he investigate Holsomback’s allegations.

"If I ever got credible information, I would act on it," Norsetter said. "There was nothing in that phone call that led me to that conclusion."

The retired prosecutor said he also forgot about a court order that required him to allow defense attorney Jerome Buting to be present any time evidence was handled or removed from its packaging.

Buting produced notes of meetings, e-mails and letters from 2005 and 2006 in which he emphasized to Norsetter that he intended to closely monitor all evidence handling. Under questioning by Assistant District Attorney Robert Kaiser, Norsetter said he probably forgot because prosecutors normally work directly with police and the crime lab to test evidence.

Norsetter acknowledged he failed to notify Buting that he was ordering a stain from Kamps’ bathroom robe tested, which he agreed was "a very critical piece of evidence." He said he wasn’t aware that the sample would be used up by the testing until it was too late.

The defense has sought to show that Norsetter’s actions were purposeful and may have been designed to falsely implicate their client. Armstrong’s attorneys noted that the type of test Norsetter ordered can’t distinguish between male relatives.

"The discovery of Mr. Norsetter’s suppression of Steve Armstrong’s confession now provides another inference — that Mr. Norsetter wanted to do a (less-precise DNA) test in the hope that he could apparently link Ralph to the crime, even if Steve was really guilty," the attorneys argued in a motion last year.

But Norsetter said Wednesday he doesn’t believe the test was his idea but was recommended by a member of the state Crime Laboratory because the female DNA in the sample was "overwhelming" the male DNA. He testified he’s not sure he knew the test couldn’t distinguish between brothers.

Norsetter said he’s never wavered from his belief that Ralph Armstrong is guilty. He said only "an unaltered videotape of some other person committing the crime" or a defendant who had "facts that only the true killer would know" would convince him Armstrong is innocent.

"Otherwise, you were convinced that Mr. Armstrong was guilty, no matter what these tests said?" Buting asked.

Replied Norsetter: "Yes."

Dane County Assistant District Attorney Andra Nollendorfs is aiding Kaiser. Armstrong is represented by Buting, of Brookfield, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in New York City and Keith Belzer of La Crosse.

Armstrong Hearing, Day 2
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct

Truth in Justice