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/