Chesterton Tribune

Miller admits killing Helmchen; gets life

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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 days.

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 population.

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 free.

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 robbery.

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 it.

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.


Posted 8/8/2001