By VICKI URBANIK and KEVIN NEVERS
After a decade of declaring his innocence, Perry Steven Miller admitted on
Tuesday that he is guilty of the 1990 murder of Chesterton High School
graduate Christel Helmchen.
The confession, reached in a plea agreement with the Porter County
Prosecutor, will spare Miller the death penalty but will put to rest
speculation that he will be retried and possibly walk free.
Miller, now 53, will instead serve a 138-year sentence for murder,
conspiracy to commit murder, robbery and criminal confinement. He will not
be considered for release from prison until he is 112 years old.
For Robert and Judy Helmchen of Jackson Township, the plea agreement finally
gives them some closure to the murder, rape and torture of their
then-17-year-old daughter, who had been working alone at night at a White
Hen Pantry just weeks before she was to begin college when she was abducted
by Miller and two teens.
But the fact that Miller won’t be executed for his crimes also symbolizes to
them the unfairness of the justice system.
“We feel the U.S. justice system is very unfair,” said Robert Helmchen.
“It’s not just, because he took Christel’s life brutally and joyfully ...
and preplanned it in great detail. And he gets away with it.”
The plea agreement was reached following the surprise decision in late June
by a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago that
overturned Miller’s murder conviction and death penalty sentence. The panel
determined that Miller’s public defender at his county trial 10 years ago
was ineffective and that he should either be retried or walk free within 120
Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter currently has a petition pending for a
rehearing before the full, nine-judge 7th Circuit, hoping to reverse the
three-judge decision. Carter has said that if that effort were to fail, he
was prepared to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. That effort,
however, will now be dismissed as a result of the plea agreement and
Miller’s new 138-year sentence.
Porter County Prosecuting Attorney James Douglas told the Chesterton Tribune
today that the possibility of a plea agreement was first generally broached
by Miller’s attorneys, and while the 138-year sentence is a disappointing
substitution for the death penalty, it will nevertheless “guarantee” that
Miller dies in prison.
Miller, he noted, will be removed from death row and placed into general
Douglas did say that though “the chances are very good we would have won”
the re-trial and that Miller would “probably” have been sentenced once again
to death, “anytime you retry a case after a long period of time, there are
problems.” These include not only the general ones of fading memories on the
part of witnesses and perhaps even jurors’ changing attitudes to the death
penalty itself, but also the specific problem presented in this case by the
need to secure the testimony of Miller’s accomplices in the murder. Ten
years ago, he said, the state had some degree of leverage over those
accomplices, leverage since lost by the disposition of their own cases. In
any case, Douglas remarked, even a second conviction, followed by a second
death sentence, would have led to the same round of appeals and the same
cycle of delays.
“From the very beginning he was the principal player,” Douglas said of
Miller. “But for him this would not have happened. And I always felt Miller
to be the most culpable.”
Robert Helmchen said the 7th Circuit panel didn’t look at the truth and was
ready to allow a murderer to walk free.
“They just looked at the nitty gritty details of what went wrong with the
trial,” he said, adding, “this is totally unbelievable.”
The 7th Circuit’s decision has led Helmchen to believe that the justice
system is biased toward the criminal. “The victim doesn’t have half as many
rights as the criminal,” he said.
On the other hand, Robert Helmchen said he and his family are relieved that
the longstanding case is over.
“Now hopefully we can close the book and to try heal the wounds that the 7th
Circuit tore right open again,” he said.
“We will never forget Christel,” he added. “The whole family was killed as a
family when she was taken away.”
Helmchen added that it has been of great comfort to the family to read
comments in newspaper stories by people who agree that an injustice has been
done and that Miller should never have been given the opportunity to walk
The plea agreement was presented Tuesday to Porter County Superior Court
Judge Roger Bradford, who presided over Miller’s original trial in 1991 and
sentenced him to die.
Bradford, using the pre-sentence report filed in 1991, accepted Miller’s
confession and sentenced him to 60 years for murder, 50 years for conspiracy
to commit murder, 20 years for criminal confinement, and eight years for
Miller will have to serve at least one-half of that sentence before he will
be eligible for release.
Douglas said in his statement that he conferred with the Helmchens prior to
entering the plea agreement and that they requested that the court accept
Miller, then 43, along with his stepson, William Harmon, then 19, and friend
Rodney Wood, then 16, was found guilty of abducting Helmchen from her
late-night job at the former White Hen Pantry in Valparaiso in November of
1990, taking her to a construction site in Jackson Township, and raping and
torturing her before Harmon killed her by shooting her at close range.
Miller, a LaPorte resident, was considered the mastermind behind the crime;
Harmon and Wood have also been convicted.
At the time, Miller was free on probation from a life sentence for
kidnapping. He had also been convicted of rape and sodomy.
Miller has maintained his innocence and has unsuccessfully appealed his
conviction to former Circuit Court Judge Raymond Kickbush, the Indiana Court
of Appeals, the Indiana Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge Allen Sharpe.
It wasn’t until his case was presented to the 7th Circuit that an appeal
found in his favor.