The Unjust Life of Donna Armey

I met Donna when I was 21.  It was 1996 and I was doing time at Lemon Creek Correctional Center for a Tampering with Physical Evidence charge. I was convicted and sentenced to 5 years with 3 suspended. Donna had been charged with First Degree Murder at age 21 in 1987. She had already served more than 10 years.

Donna was quiet, intelligent, petite and blonde. I wasn’t. I was a hellion when I was 21 and in Lemon Creek Correctional Center. We didn’t have much in common but I had always been in awe of her, partly because of her calming demeanor and partly because she was surviving a life sentence. She didn’t belong there and I knew in the back of my mind somehow, she would be released.

Early parole?

Post Conviction Release (PCR)?

In 2014 I was arrested and placed into Hiland Mountain Correctional Center and Donna was there. I was surprised. I would always see her in the law library, where she worked for .50 an hour. She hadn’t won any of her appeals and had a very slow moving, frustrating one in the works.

She had endured countless people saying they would help her. Some did, to no avail,  and many didn’t. Over time we became close. We were roomies and would have decadent ice cream nights as we watched The Walking Dead. She would cook amazing vegetarian meals purchased from the measly commissary list, her only cooking apparatus a microwave. At times I would sneak her back fresh fruit from the cafeteria since she would very rarely go for their overstarched and empty calorie-laden meals.

Donna Armey is an amazing woman with a heartbreaking tale. I am embarking on this story of a life wasted away due to being incarcerated by hashing it out on this blog and then shedding light on her ordeal by doing two other things. First, I will be creating a website focusing on the many complex issues surrounding her conviction and her PCR, as well as the lawsuits and harassing write-ups and sexual misconduct by DOC, and second, a funding site to assist her with her ongoing PCR.

This is a brave woman who hasn’t sat idly by. Donna didn’t and still doesn’t back down to speaking of her innocence. Being a woman incarcerated you learn to keep your mouth shut. Not make waves. Not speak up. Usually, DOC gets away with this because women have more to lose. Contact with children, contact with the family. That’s not the case with Donna. She was never afforded the opportunity to have children, to raise a family, nor was she able to go to either of her parents’ funerals. She has paid a price. I love and respect her for never giving up.  I have waited a long time to be able to do this for her.

Donna as a participant at one of the Re-Entry Conferences that Hiland Mountain Correctional Center held.

The facts of the case are clear. Donna Armey was convicted of a murder that happened when she wasn’t there and that she didn’t orchestrate.

The shooter, Denbo, has been released and is living free.

What the hell happened and where are they now?

With support from home, Donna hired a well-known Fairbanks criminal defense attorney, Dick Madson, a local defense attorney best known for representing Exxon Valdez skipper Joe Hazelwood.

But before they met, Madson added her husband as his client. Although their interests conflicted, Madson remained the official attorney for both defendants for the crucial next two months.

The prosecution offered plea bargains. Mike Moritz testified and got five years with two suspended for helping kidnap Miner and to take him to his execution.

Clyde Denbo, the killer, also agreed to testify and got a 75-year sentence. If he had been convicted of kidnapping and murder, he could have gotten more than 200 years. He was released from prison in 2015.

Brad Graber helped with the kidnapping but didn’t participate in the murder. He got a suspended sentence for criminally negligent homicide, spending nine months in jail.

The state also offered deals to the Mathises, delivered through Madson. The district attorney would allow Donna Armey to plead guilty to manslaughter, like Moritz, while Geoff Mathis could plead guilty to first-degree murder.

All drug charges would be dropped.

Apparently nothing was put in writing, but the offers were mentioned in court filings later.

Donna Armey didn’t take the plea bargain because she was innocent. But she also says she didn’t understand the risk she faced.

Madson presented the manslaughter deal in a cursory way, taking only a few minutes when all three were in a small prison meeting room together.

Madson did not explain the implications.

The plea bargain offered would have gotten Donna Armey out in a few years at most with no requirement to testify. But after her conviction, prosecutors asked the judge for a sentence of more than 200 years.

In a 2003 affidavit, Madson defended his actions and said he did all he could to convince Donna to accept the plea bargain. The same affidavit also said, falsely, that he never represented both defendants.

Geoff got his own attorney but the couple’s cases were never separated. Having a joined defense created the impression Donna’s behavior was the same as her husband’s. The Anchorage attorney who represented Geoff, Janet Crepps, worked closely with Madson during the trial.

During the trial, Madson made a few efforts to distinguish Donna’s role from her husband’s but presented no witnesses. Most testimonies referred to the couple as “they” rather than as individuals.

Donna could have testified. She was an articulate and appealing young woman and could have believably blamed everything on her husband. She told me she would have told the whole story, including her husband’s part in it.

Madson said in his affidavit that he advised Donna not to testify because she had nothing to say that would help, he didn’t call witnesses because there were none to call, and he didn’t try to split the trials because the defenses of Donna and Geoff were the same.

The decision to pair the couple’s defenses and keep Donna off the stand may have benefited Geoff, who had been Madson’s client for two months.

The trials could easily have been split.

As the trial date approached, Crepps was on vacation. She requested a time extension to prepare.

At that point, Donna could have insisted on her right to a speedy trial, which would have automatically split her case from her husband’s. But she says no one explained the disadvantage of a joint trial and she waived her right.

The other accomplices made plea deals to testify against the Mathises.

In jail before the trial, Denbo told a fellow prisoner, Monte Kimball, that he shot Miner because he had panicked, not as part of a plan, according to a private investigator’s report from the time. But Denbo said he would testify against Donna to get the plea bargain and lessen his own sentence.

Even with that intent, Denbo didn’t offer much against her.

A key piece of evidence suggesting Donna knew about the murder beforehand was what she said when the killers returned to the pickup. Moritz said she asked, having heard three shots, if they had each taken turns firing.

On the witness stand, he failed to back up Moritz’s story about what Donna said right after the shooting.

Instead, Denbo said what Geoff Mathis also told me, that she was surprised by the shots and asked what had happened.

Then, on prompting from the prosecutor, Denbo changed his testimony to agree with Moritz’s.

But 10 years later, Denbo changed his story. In a letter and affidavit sent from prison to the trial judge, he said he had lied to implicate Donna Armey to get the plea bargain. Claiming he had reformed and wanted to clear his conscience, he now said Donna had nothing to do with planning the murder.

Leaving aside Denbo’s testimony, the last piece of evidence disappears that Donna Armey caused the murder.

After hearing all the evidence, Judge Jay Hodges considered dismissing the case, weighing whether Donna Armey could even be called an accomplice in the crime.

Using a legal rule to assume everything in the worst possible light against her, he said it was a close call.

But he let the case go to the jury and they handed her the same conviction as her husband.

Judge Jay Hodges sentenced Donna Armey to 99 years.

Donna as a participant at one of the Re-Entry Conferences Hiland Mountain Correctional Center put on.

What can you do?

Share this blog, help Donna’s story get out there.

She needs media attention and financial assistance fighting her PCR case. Having a private attorney that cares would be optimal.  I will be creating a crowdfunding source and have this linked to Donna’s site, once created.

Set up a Securus account.

Donna cannot call anyone unless they have an account. It costs $1.08 a minute to speak with a voice at the other end of the phone. She has been incarcerated for over 30 years now.

If you set up a Securus account thru this link write her and let her know so she can call you and you can either assist or add numbers to the account so she can contact people to assist.

Donna Armey #139122

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center

9101 Hesterberg Road

Eagle River, AK 99517

Donna as a participant at one of the Re-Entry Conferences that Hiland Mountain Correctional Center held.

Last time I spoke with Donna, she still had a court-appointed attorney, Jason Weiner out of Fairbanks, and was very dissatisfied with his representation. 

Gazewood & Weiner PC

1008 16th Avenue, Suite 200
Fairbanks, AK 99701

907-452-5196

Excerpts from https://www.leagle.com/decision/19891939778p2d116111917 and Charles Wohlford’s article https://www.adn.com/opinions/2017/05/13/unjustly-imprisoned-for-30-years-donna-armey-cant-get-alaskas-courts-to-listen-2/

 

Why we are the way we are

Freedom of expression and public opinion is democracy in action, and media can be the high traffic bridge that connects us, as individuals, with what is going on around us. Media shines a light on issues, both near and far from us. Media can also expose differences and actions that are not in the public interest.

On one hand, media shows us what “they” want us to see. It’s influence on an issue is not necessary the greater public beliefs, but rather a belief of what is being fed to the writer, to the news, or someones own personal view on the issue. If it lacks transparency, if it feeds us incorrect stats, it can be damaging. This undermines democracy and instead creates a witch hunt. Does this mean all media, journalism, news, Facebook, blogs are fed by an interest group? Not always, not usually, but sometimes.

On a local level, I have seen the news, online and televised, focused on issues that are easily sensationalized. I am talking about Senate Bill 91 here, and in full disclosure, I have a personal opinion to the positive aspects of what is can do for us, as Alaskans. Others have personal opinions regarding how its not working. Regardless, in order to understand an issue, I have always tried to see the other side. And the other side is angry. The other side is also confusing the Senate Bill 91 with homelessness, vagrancy, and what happened when “so and so was sentenced four years ago”. I have read the headlines of “spiraling crime” and am a part of some Facebook crime groups. Luckily, or unluckily for us, depending on who you ask, is a greater ability for shared information and how in turn it makes media and any spin accessable. Media and public opinion can be influential in policies that affect us, as Alaskans. People have a voice, even if its biased. Even if it is led by misinformation. Even if it is negligent.

Access to information is important for democracy and helps us make informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. There is a shortcoming, as there always is, being the issue of “how true the information is that is shared”.

Is the information slanted to one view?

Who does this benefit?

Where does the information come from?

So many questions to ask when looking at the validity of an article, newscast, debate, blog, Facebook post…the list goes on.

We believe what we want to believe, using our own lived experiences, what we have seen or heard before, and read before. If a newspaper prints something erroneously, the correction usually appears on a back page, near the bottom, in small print. The printed or broadcasted information is now the experience, not the correction.

Is democracy really a “government of the people, for the people, by the people”?

SB91 is a hot button topic for many Alaskans. Media serves as a means to convince an already frightened public that longer sentences are needed, that the old “nothing works” mentality from the 1970’s is needed again. Thus, a cycle of high incarceration rates, with few rehabilitative solutions, is seen by many as the only option. Remember, that is what we have had for years. And it wasn’t working.

Full disclosure, I am writing this with an ankle bracelet on. I have been incarcerated since I was arrested in 2014. I was granted parole and am due to be released in November, next month from the time of this writing. I am writing this in response to the public meeting I attended October 7th at the Anchorage Assembly. During the public testimony I heard many voices of concern, anger, and misinformation.

“Why can’t we use the criminals PFDs to pay for their incarceration?”

Per PFD website:

You are not eligible for a dividend if during the qualifying year you were:

  • sentenced as a result of a conviction of a felony;
  • incarcerated as a result of a conviction of a felony;
  • incarcerated as a result of a conviction of a misdemeanor if you were convicted of a prior felony after 12/31/96;
  • incarcerated as a result of a conviction of a misdemeanor and were convicted of two or more prior misdemeanors after 12/31/96.

Crimes before the SB91 was even enacted were brought up, one woman expressing frustration over her daughter’s killer not being sentenced, three years later.

This is a sentencing issue, and many are frustrated by this. And have been for years, far before SB91 was ever thought into existence.

According to one man, all homeless should be in jail, and it is SB91’s fault they are not.

Homelessness is not a crime.

Car theft has been on the uptick, and SB91 was to blame for this.

Another angry, misinformed Anchorage resident stated “If I burn this building down, it could be a Class B felony, but prosecuters would give me a plea deal, and it would be a Class C felony. Because I am not a felon, I wouldn’t have to do any jail time for it, thanks to SB91.”

No, you would likely be charged with a plethora of Class B charges, and a few Class C’s for good measure. A plea deal for a Class B would most likely be the scenario. See the statutes below, along with an updated sentencing chart. There are also things called “aggravators” and “mitigators”. That increases or decreases the sentence. Here is the link for those.

AS 11.46.400. Arson in the First Degree.

(a) A person commits the crime of arson in the first degree if the person intentionally damages any property by starting a fire or causing an explosion and by that act recklessly places another person in danger of serious physical injury. For purposes of this section, “another person” includes but is not limited to fire and police service personnel or other public employees who respond to emergencies, regardless of rank, functions, or duties being performed.
(b) Arson in the first degree is a class A felony.

AS 11.46.410. Arson in the Second Degree.

(a) A person commits the crime of arson in the second degree if the person intentionally damages a building by starting a fire or causing an explosion.
(b) In a prosecution under this section, it is an affirmative defense

(1) that no person other than the defendant had a possessory, proprietary, or security interest in the building or that all persons having such an interest consented to the defendant’s conduct; and
(2) that the sole intent of the defendant was to damage or destroy the building for a lawful purpose.
(c) Arson in the second degree is a class B felony.

AS 11.46.420. Arson in the Third Degree.

(a) A person commits the crime of arson in the third degree if the person intentionally damages a motor vehicle by starting a fire or causing an explosion while that vehicle is located on state or municipal land.
(b) Arson in the third degree is a class C felony.

See sentencing guidelines, past and present, 002_JU2016200423 .

Also, having an arson felony, you would be ineligible for electronic monitoring and doing time in a Community Residential Center.

 

One woman said SB91 had let someone fall through the cracks who was subsequently shot by police during a routine traffic stop. She was adamant that SB91 is at fault for the mans death, not the officer who shot him.

This is pointing to SB91 as the cause of the man being shot, not logical.

So what now? Viewing criminals within the retribution model, rather than the rehabilitation model, results in an increase of sentences, more parole and probation revocations and more arrests. These are associated with high recidivism rates as well (going back to jail once you leave, due to a parole violation, probation violation or a new charge). Parole/probation violations could be something as simple as interacting with another felon (maybe you met at a support group and went for coffee and fell in love), getting a dirty urinalysis, drinking at a bar, not having an address to list on you monthly probation report. There are many reasons to revoke.

The Uniform Crime Report (UCR) shows that Alaska’s crime rate dropped in national rankings, yet Alaska was one of the top eight states in per capita prison population. Alaska Courts took notice and knew something needed to change.

Even in this report, dated Summer/Fall 2011, the efforts of the Alaska Prisoner Reentry Task Force of the Alaska Criminal Justice Working Group (CJWG) collaborated on ways to improve Alaska’s justice system. The CJWG was co-chaired by Alaska Supreme Court Justice Walter Carpeneti and Attorney General John Burns. The plan had recommended examining laws, rules, policies and practices that resulted in incarcerating individuals who posed no substantial risk to the community; increasing prosecutorial discretion; expanding use of halfway houses; and augmenting therapeutic courts and other problem-solving courts for misdemeanants.

Alaska Justice Forum 28(2–3), Summer_Fall 2011

So here we are. SB 91 hasn’t been fully enacted and we are ready to throw out the carefully researched information that took years to forumulate because of what some feel is an uptick in crime. But is that really what is going on? Or is it the ability to put anything and everything out in media, our slants, our opinions, our voices, and call it truth?