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Unjustly imprisoned for 30 years, Donna Armey can't get Alaska's courts to listen

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 13, 2017
  • Published May 13, 2017

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

First of three columns.

March 5 marked 30 years of imprisonment for Donna Armey for a murder that happened when she wasn't present and that she didn't direct. The shooter has been released and is living free.

She lost her life in a plea bargain decision and a flawed trial. Her desperate claims of innocence have never stopped. But no judge has ever weighed the merits of her claims, nor probably ever will.

In this column and my next two I'll present this case and another that is as bad, asking why Alaska's justice system is so resistant to fixing its errors.

In three decades, our courts have exonerated only one convict. (The state gave up the Fairbanks Four in 2015 before a judge ruled on their release.)

The executive clemency process called for in the Alaska Constitution has long been inoperative.

I learned about Armey's case from Nancy Webb last year after Webb's daughter, serving a sentence for a drug conviction, shared her cell at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. Armey had been a promising young woman, never in trouble, when she was convicted of first-degree murder in 1987.

"I could hear my daughter starting to get good sense about things through interacting with Donna," Webb said. "Donna was a good influence on her. I could tell."

As she left prison, Webb's daughter promised Armey to get help. And Webb did her best, reading court files that outraged her and looking for a way to tell the world.

They exchanged letters — Armey writes well, with a huge vocabulary — and Webb took her phone calls, paying the Alaska Department of Corrections' exorbitant telephone fees.

Armey doesn't get many visitors. Her parents back in Michigan died and family lost touch. She missed the chance to start her own family. She was jailed at 21 and today is 51.

Webb eventually stopped accepting the calls. She realized that she didn't have anything to say.

Meanwhile, Armey's appeals roll on. The senseless ball of legal arguments is well over 10,000 pages now, sitting before the Alaska Court of Appeals. But it has never reached the real issues.

Alaska's courts care if Armey properly filed a petition for review by an arbitrary deadline, 20 years ago, but not whether the state was justified in taking away her life.

Like any story that encompasses a life, Armey's tale takes some explaining, and this column will be longer than usual. I contacted each person involved in the murder, read trial transcripts and tried to reach my own conclusions about what happened.

The murder

A crew cab pickup drove north from Fairbanks on a winter night, December 1986 or January 1987. It carried four men and one woman, Donna Mathis, who is now Donna Armey (for simplicity, I'll use the name Armey). Her husband, Geoffrey Mathis, was next to her at the wheel.

Mark Miner, who would soon be dead, was seated in back with a man guarding him on either side.

Geoff had been an Air Force air traffic controller. Back in Kentucky, his family had a carpet store and beauty shop.

The couple had been good students and church members. A sentencing judge in Fairbanks would say he had never seen so many positive letters from supporters as he received on their behalf.

Donna was only 15 when she met Geoff as a high school student in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. He was serving on a nearby military base. Her father was a General Motors engineer. She turned 18, graduated high school and married, all in the spring of 1983.

The Air Force sent the couple to Alaska. Geoff Mathis discovered cocaine living in a Fairbanks trailer park, where he was amazed to learn how people lived, he told me last year at Wildwood Correctional Complex in Kenai.

When he left the service early in 1986, in Alaska's deep recession, he went into business with a neighbor who got him into drugs, 21-year-old Clyde Denbo. They began selling drugs from a supplier Denbo had.

Donna had her own jobs and never used drugs. She said it took time to figure out what was going on. When she did, she bought her own house from a schoolteacher and wouldn't let Geoff bring his druggie friends there. They stayed together intermittently.

In court transcripts, the drug partners and their associates come across as dumb and incompetent, like macho kids playacting as gangsters. Within months Mathis and Denbo had allowed customers to accumulate big debts for drugs.

On a couple of nights in one of the trailers they talked about beating up or killing one of their indebted customers, Miner, whom they suspected of being a police informant.

Lots of testimony focused on these discussions. But in the end, the record was unclear who was involved, who spoke and what was decided. Denbo was the only witness who clearly confirmed Donna was aware of the talk and that she spoke, but he said she just put in a few words that he couldn't remember.

But, as we shall see, Denbo at other times said he lied about that.

Denbo and another accomplice, Brad Graber, found Miner and lured him to Graber's trailer. Denbo pulled a gun on Miner and Geoff Mathis disarmed him. One of the accomplices said Geoff gave the guns to Donna, but she denies this.

Then the five — the Mathises, Miner, Denbo and another drug debtor, Mike Moritz — got in the Mathises' pickup to drive out of town, supposedly to meet another dealer, although the real purpose was to assault or kill Miner.

The four men walked up a snowy driveway, leaving Donna in the truck, then cut off into the woods. As the snow got deep, Miner turned to walk back and Denbo shot him. On the ground, Miner moaned. Denbo shot him two more times. The men covered the body with snow and returned to the truck.

Riding back to town, Donna gathered what had happened and got upset they would be caught. The men hadn't thought of removing evidence with their fingerprints from Miner's body. They drove back and Geoff Mathis and Denbo hiked back to the scene.

Driving again toward Fairbanks, the accomplices threw Miner's stuff out the window of the truck.

Within a few months the Alaska State Troopers began closing in, having been tipped off by a bartender who heard Graber talking in a bar. Moritz turned himself in and agreed to wear a recording device to gather evidence.

After arresting the Mathises and Denbo, troopers found a storage unit containing a safe, drugs and parts of the murder weapon. When she was arrested, Donna had a key to the unit in the watch pocket of her jeans and the combination to the safe in her purse.

The safe combination was not allowed as evidence. Donna told me she had the combination because it was her safe that Geoff had taken from her house.

She claims she didn't know about the storage unit. She and Geoff both said the key in her pocket belonged to Denbo. Donna said Geoff gave it to her to hold.

The key was not on her key ring with her other keys and her fingerprints were not found in the storage unit, although Geoff's were.

Moritz's recordings were the most incriminating evidence. I have been unable to obtain them, but I pieced together the worst of what was said from court documents.

Donna Armey talked a lot on the tapes, including laughing and agreeing when someone said she was as guilty as the rest of them. People who listened to the tapes were disgusted by the lack of remorse and even gloating over Miner's death.

But today Armey says she was not talking about the murder when she sarcastically agreed she was guilty. Besides, she said, the tapes were made months after the crime, when she had been told all the facts while discussing the cover-up.

The tapes do not establish that she knew about the murder before it happened.

The trial

With ample support from home, Donna Armey hired a well-known Fairbanks criminal defense attorney, Dick Madson. 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. (Today he lives in Wasilla, but would not comment.)

Clyde Denbo, the killer, also agreed to testify and got a 75-year sentence. If 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 to 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.

Plea bargains decide 95 to 97 percent of all criminal cases in America. Jed S. Rakoff, U.S. district judge for southern New York, wrote recently that in our justice system, prosecutors decide guilt and punishment, not courts, because mandatory sentences are so long and trials are so unpredictable.

"It is much too risky for any defendant, even an innocent one, to go to trial," Rakoff wrote in The New York Review of Books.

Donna Armey says she 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, she and Geoff said, in a cursory way, taking only a few minutes, when all three were in a small prison meeting room together. He did not explain the implications.

Madson did not return a phone message left at a number listed in his name. In a 2003 affidavit he defended his actions and said he did all he could to convince Donna to accept the plea bargain. But the same affidavit also said, falsely, that he never represented both defendants.

Prosecutor Pat Doogan wouldn't discuss the case and didn't remember the plea bargain offer. The Fairbanks district attorney at the time, Harry Davis, did not return my calls.

I wanted to know how the prosecution could believe in the justice of both the outcomes they pursued.

The plea bargain they 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.

Geoff got his own attorney and both attorneys presented the plea offer to Donna again, 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.

During the trial, Madson made a few efforts to distinguish her role from her husband's, but presented no witnesses. Most testimony 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 Armey 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 Anchorage attorney who represented Geoff, Janet Crepps, worked closely with Madson during the trial.

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, Armey 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.

Like other attorneys who have been involved in the case, Crepps declined to comment.

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

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.

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 Armey to get the plea bargain and lessen his own sentence.

Even with that intent, he didn't offer much against her.

On the witness stand, he testified that she uttered those few, unremembered words while planning the murder. But 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 again. 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.

I found Denbo in Missouri last year and talked to him by phone. Now he changed his story again, saying Donna was guilty after all.

I suspect he was trying to keep me from writing about the case. In any event, having changed his story so many times, he is no longer credible.

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. Hodges sentenced each to 99 years.

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, May 2017 (Rugile Kaladyte / Alaska Dispatch News)

The appeals

In 1990, Cynthia Feland, a North Dakota attorney and now a judge, represented Donna Armey during an investigation of sexual misconduct by the warden of a prison where she was incarcerated. As a witness, officials repeatedly attacked Armey as a liar.

"In the end Donna's credibility proved flawless," Feland later wrote. The warden was forced to resign.

Although Armey was transferred out of North Dakota, she impressed Feland enough for her to keep in touch and ultimately to read her trial transcripts and appeals. Feland became the first of several attorneys and legal experts who said Armey's trial was flawed and her sentence unjust.

They particularly cited Madson's conflict of interest in representing both clients and his failure to request a separate trial. Feland also criticized Armey's attorneys in her appeals.

Feland wrote, and I agree, that although Armey was not completely innocent, her conviction and sentence were vastly out of proportion with her degree of guilt.

"It is painfully obvious that Donna has fallen through the cracks in the criminal justice system," Feland wrote in 2004 to an Alaska judge then considering Armey's petition for Post-Conviction Relief, called a PCR.

"Donna has worked diligently over the years to find 'professionals' who could assist her in correcting the grave injustice of her conviction. Time and time again, these 'professionals' have either completely failed to file the proper paperwork and documentation or have failed to file in a timely fashion," Feland wrote.

I called Feland, but she said her position as a judge kept her from commenting. However, court records show the pattern she discussed in her letter.

Armey's original attorney, Madson, carried her first appeal, but did not address the key issues the other attorneys have identified, his representation of both defendants in the first two months and the joint trial of Armey with her husband.

Madson said he would file a PCR petition after the appeals failed, but he never did, according to Feland and Armey.

Armey later hired various other attorneys who didn't follow through as her case grew colder, or were unqualified to represent her.

For example, Armey's mother paid $20,000 to Anchorage attorney Marcus Paine. He did nothing and wouldn't return phone calls. Finally, Armey's complaints helped get Paine disbarred (he later died in a plane crash). The Alaska Bar Association paid back most of the money. But by then, Armey had lost three years more.

The court appointed an attorney who refused to criticize Madson's handling of the case because he knew and respected him. Another publicly funded attorney let a year pass without doing anything and then dropped the case. There were others.

The Alaska Legislature passed a law in 1995 setting a statute of limitations on filing PCR petitions. Armey's time was running out.

In 1996, she says she wrote her own PCR petition and sent it to an Alaska court clerk just within the new deadline. She hadn't done the paperwork correctly, but an appeal court later ruled that if she could prove she filed it in time, a later PCR could go forward.

But at the time, 1996, the clerk of the court did not log receipt of improperly filed papers, so no record would exist of a rejected petition. A clerk did later testify to a vague memory of seeing papers with Armey's name on them, but no one ever found a copy.

The court also lost a 1997 petition Armey filed. But she could prove that one because a friend outside prison kept a copy with the court's stamp.

The missing 1996 filing generated years of legal proceedings until a judge ruled in 2015 that it never occurred. With that ruling, Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Douglas Blankenship determined the merits of Armey's case are irrelevant because she filed late.

Perhaps she could have proved the existence of the 1996 petition, like the 1997 version, if she had a copy. But the state destroyed most of her legal papers years ago.

Through the years, Armey collected a huge trove of papers, recordings and investigator reports to prove her innocence. But she last saw those papers in 2002.

Donna Armey models a “what to wear” outfit in a fashion show at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in 2010. As part of the Success Inside & Out program, inmates participated in the show wearing examples of what to wear and what not to wear for job interviews. (Bob Hallinen / ADN archive 2010)

Imprisoned at Hiland Mountain, Armey had again become a witness to sexual misconduct by prison officials. A guard raped a female prisoner. Armey's journals recorded sexual activity by that guard and others that would back up the victim's allegations.

But court records show that when prison officials found out about the journals they seized them and later Armey's other papers, took away her top "Honor Status" privileges, trashed her cell, and put her and other female witnesses in solitary confinement, among other punishments.

The rape charge was vindicated and the state had to pay the victim years ago. But Armey's papers were sent to the dump.

A judge finally ruled on how that affects her case in 2015.

After a five-day hearing, Blankenship ruled Armey had no right to document the guards' activities, the prison was within its rights to punish her, and the state had no duty to retain evidence such as her papers after her conviction.

He blamed Armey for not arranging to have the papers taken somewhere else after she was told she couldn't keep them in her cell.

Blankenship's ruling is under appeal. But that court won't consider the real issues, the original attorney's conflict of interest, the plea bargain, the recantation, or the other flaws in the case. I doubt any court ever will.

Armey seems more likely to receive parole in three years than to get a hearing about the clear injustice of her conviction and sentence 30 years ago.

Donna Armey today

I've never encountered Donna Armey on the phone or in person when she wasn't on edge. She is deeply and overwhelmingly angry.

Sometimes her anger sends her into blizzards of confusing legal explanations. Sometimes it produces flowery denunciations of lawyers and judges who let her down. Sometimes she goes after people who were trying to help.

Her state-funded Fairbanks attorney, Jason Weiner, pleaded with Judge Blankenship to let Armey fire his firm, saying she is abusive, uses foul language, accuses her attorney and the judge of colluding to keep her in jail, and makes extreme legal demands.

It's easy enough for lawyers and judges to complain about Armey, but she is the person their system created. Who wouldn't be angry and paranoid after living her life?

The day after she marked 30 years in prison I asked how that anniversary had felt.

She said, "I don't call it anniversary. There's nothing to celebrate. When you have spent your life in jail for a crime you didn't commit, and the people who did it are free, how is that an anniversary?"

Then she began to cry. But she didn't stop talking, circling around again to the destroyed boxes, the investigator reports, the witnesses, the attorneys and the myriad legal details. So many betrayals and errors, so much disrespect, and the crushing uncaring of a broken criminal justice system.

I can't imagine fighting for so long. But after so much time, with only herself to cling to, Donna Armey has only gotten stronger.

That's the only way I can explain her answer when I asked if she regrets not taking the plea bargain.

"My reason for not taking the plea bargain is because I didn't kill anybody," she said. "In retrospect, I still wouldn't take it. I did not kill Mark Miner."

Next: In part 2, meet Suzette Welton, who has served 17 years of a life sentence for a conviction based on debunked science. Although evidence of her guilt evaporated, Alaska's courts have no mechanism to let her out of prison.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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