Patiently and silently, Kathy Armitage has waited for justice.
Now, 12 years after her husband, Richard Armitage, was beaten to death in his downtown law office, she is faced with the realization that justice may never come.
With the news this week that charges against the man accused in the killing have been dismissed, Kathy Armitage said she can no longer remain silent.
“There has been one screw-up after another screw-up after another screw-up at the Jackson County prosecutor’s office,” she said of the chain of circumstances that prompted a judge and an appeals court to order all evidence in the case be thrown out.
Those court rulings found that prosecutors had failed to provide evidence to defense attorneys in a timely manner throughout the prosecution of Richard Buchli, who shared a law office with Richard Armitage.
The sanction for those discovery violations — the exclusion of all evidence — was imposed against the state, but it left Armitage’s family feeling victimized all over again.
“The system failed completely,” Kathy Armitage said.
The case didn’t start that way. From the perspective of the Armitage family, Kansas City police, crime investigators and county prosecutors did a stellar job of collecting evidence and bringing charges against Buchli.
After a trial in 2002, a Jackson County jury found Buchli guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
“The hard-core forensic evidence showed that man killed my husband,” Armitage said.
But on appeal, the state’s case unraveled.
It was discovered that a key piece of evidence — surveillance video from the building where the two lawyers had their office — had not been fully provided to the defense before trial. Because of that omission and because Buchli’s original trial attorney was ineffective, a judge ruled Buchli’s conviction should be reversed.
Buchli was released on bond after serving about five years in prison as prosecutors prepared to retry him for murder.
His new attorneys complained that they weren’t provided with information, and in 2010, the Nodaway County judge who had been assigned to hear the case ruled that because of those lapses, all evidence in the case should be suppressed.
Jackson County prosecutors appealed, saying at the time that they thought the judge had erred in his ruling.
But in an opinion released in December, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision. When the high court last week declined to review the decision, Jackson County prosecutors were left with no evidence with which to try Buchli. On Friday, they filed a motion to dismiss the case.
Though she attended every hearing in the case except one, Kathy Armitage said she never spoke out publicly through those years of legal wrangling because she didn’t want to jeopardize the case.
“I put my trust in the legal system,” she said. “It was horrible to watch this whole thing snowball into this big mess before me now. I was dumbfounded and devastated and so angry it had gotten this far.”
Armitage said she appreciated the integrity of Jean Peters Baker, who became county prosecutor in 2011 after the discovery violations occurred.
In a written statement, Baker said she had personally expressed to Armitage her office’s profound regret that it was compelled to dismiss the case against Buchli. Baker said she understood why Armitage thinks that is less than enough.
“The saddest part of this 12-year-old crime is that a victim’s family continues to live with the pain of not only their loss, but also of a justice system that has yet to work for them,” Baker said.
And Richard Armitage’s murderer remains free, Baker noted. “That’s a tragedy.”
Baker’s predecessor as prosecutor, Jim Kanatzar, is now a Jackson County circuit judge. Kanatzar said Wednesday that he felt empathy for what Kathy Armitage and other members of the victim’s family have gone through.
“Three separate prosecutors, including myself, put a tremendous amount of resources into this case, which included appointing some of our best lawyers to work on it,” Kanatzar said.
Kanatzar said courts made decisions along the way that “we disagreed with,” and he said judges in the system could not agree on what was appropriate.
“Unfortunately, this is one of those difficult cases that didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” he said. “I’m very sorry for the victim’s family that it ended that way.”
Armitage said part of her frustration was not having any recourse.
Buchli “got a second shot,” she said. “I didn’t.”
Armitage said that because prosecutors have virtually unlimited immunity, she can do nothing to hold them accountable.
“I can’t sue them for not doing their job,” she said. “Maybe that law needs to be changed.”
A lawyer for Buchli said that he was pleased with the dismissal and that he has always been convinced of his client’s innocence.
But Armitage said she takes little solace, knowing that the only jury to hear the evidence and assess Buchli’s demeanor on the witness stand found him guilty of murder.
“He got off on human error,” she said.