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Jerry Buting of Brookfield is one of two Wisconsin criminal defense attorneys who became famous in a hurry in late 2015 with the release of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer.”
Buting—and his co-counsel, Madison’s Dean Strang—unsuccessfully defended Steven Avery on charges Avery murdered Teresa Helbach in 2005 in Manitowoc County. The 10-part Netflix series cast doubt on the legitimacy of the arrests and convictions of Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey.
Now Buting has written a book, “Illusion of Justice: Inside ‘Making a Murderer’ and America’s Broken System,” which, while capitalizing on Buting’s TV fame, is in fact about more than the Netflix series, and the Avery case.
That point should be of particular interest to Madison area readers, and I will be interviewing Buting about the book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, at the Madison Central Library, an event co-sponsored by Mystery to Me bookstore and the Wisconsin Book Festival.
Before there was Steven Avery, Buting writes in the new book, there was Ralph Armstrong, who was convicted of the gruesome 1980 murder of 19-year-old Charise Kamps in downtown Madison.
“Few crimes in Madison’s history were as shocking as this one,” Buting writes.
The lawyer, who worked on Armstrong’s appeal, says there was a disturbing rush to judgment on the part of law enforcement and prosecutors in both the Armstrong and Avery cases.
“For anyone who doubts the plausibility of the more aggressive elements of our defense of Steven Avery,” Buting writes, “Ralph Armstrong’s case provides a template of mistakes, misconduct, and breathtaking twists.”
In writing about Armstrong, Buting cites “a hypnotized (and unreliable) eyewitness” who claimed to have seen Armstrong leaving Kamps’ apartment around the time of the murder.
I read that passage in Buting’s new book, and suddenly I was taken back 35 years, to one of the first articles I ever wrote for Madison Magazine. You see, the star witness from the Armstrong trial—who lived across the street from the victim—sent the magazine a letter from the Dane County Jail.
The witness—a troubled young man named Riccie Orebia—sent the magazine a letter in 1982. He wanted to tell his story. I got the assignment.
Armstrong had been convicted by then, sentenced in 1981 to life plus 16 years.
Orebia’s testimony in the Armstrong case made headlines. He came to court dressed as a woman. He’d changed his story of what happened that night more than once. In the end he testified that, yes, it was Ralph Armstrong he’d seen leaving the Kamps apartment.
The trial ended, but Orebia’s trials did not. Depressed and angry, he set fire to his Madison apartment, which is why he was in jail when I went to see him.
“You’re the writer?” he asked through a plate-glass jail window.
Orebia talked about his life, a tough upbringing in Seattle, a series of foster homes and then the street, and the bad luck that put him out on his porch on Gorham Street on that fateful night in 1980.
After my piece appeared in the magazine, we stayed in touch for a while. He called when he got out of jail, and we had a drink at Paul’s Club on State Street. He said he was scared to be out. “Sometimes I think I feel safer there,” he said, meaning jail.
In 2005, I had a seat in the back of the Wisconsin Supreme Court when Jerry Buting and Barry Scheck—who gained fame through the O. J. Simpson case—argued for an appeal of Ralph Armstrong’s conviction based in part on the unreliability of Orebia’s testimony. As Buting notes in his new book, they also had DNA tests that excluded Armstrong from certain physical evidence that had helped convict him at trial.
The Supreme Court overturned the conviction, but Armstrong wound up in a New Mexico prison because of a parole violation that surfaced during his trial in Madison. In 2009, the state of Wisconsin dropped its efforts to retry Ralph Armstrong for the Kamps murder. A Dane County judge had found prosecutorial misconduct in the case.
It was two years later that I got a phone call at my office in Madison.
“This is Marcel del Rico,” a voice said. “You knew me as Riccie Orebia.”
We had coffee. He’d made a new life for himself, name change and all, in Oshkosh. He shared positive letters of recommendation from his landlord and parole agent.
“I got tired of being a nobody,” he said.
Finally, he said this: “I still think Ralph is the guy I saw.”
Near the end of “Illusion of Justice,” Buting writes of seeing Armstrong in Chicago in summer 2016, standing outside Morton’s Steakhouse smoking a cigarette. He was on parole from New Mexico and in Chicago to give a deposition in his civil lawsuit against Madison and Dane County for incarcerating him nearly three decades “for a crime he had not committed,” Buting writes.
In February, just as Buting’s book was being published, came the kicker: Madison and Dane County agreed to pay Ralph Armstrong a combined $1.75 million to settle the lawsuit.
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.