Attorney whose murder conviction was tossed fights to regain law license

A disbarred Kansas City attorney once convicted of killing his law partner is fighting to regain his law license.

Richard Buchli II wants the Missouri Supreme Court to set aside its 2005 disbarment order, which was based on his 2002 first-degree murder conviction in the death of Richard Armitage in their downtown office.

Citing evidence withheld from the defense, a judge overturned Buchli’s conviction six years ago. Though Jackson County prosecutors had planned to retry Buchli, they dismissed the case earlier this year after an appeals court threw out all their evidence.

“In order to move forward and have the opportunity to reclaim some financial security,” Buchli’s law license “should be reinstated without any further delay,” attorney Robert Ernest Gould wrote in a court filing on Buchli’s behalf.

Reached by phone last week, Buchli, 62, declined to comment, but on a website devoted to his case, he thanked the attorneys who fought for years on his behalf.

“Due to a hurried and incomplete investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of my friend and partner, Richard E. Armitage, I was wrongly accused and tried for his murder,” Buchli wrote.

When the Missouri Supreme Court disbarred Buchli, it cited the murder conviction as its sole reason, but the lack of a murder charge or conviction doesn’t necessarily mean a lawyer will be reinstated, said Ellen Suni, dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school.

Disciplinary authorities are not bound by the same standard of proof that is required to obtain a conviction, Suni said.

“They could look at all of the underlying facts and determine whether or not they believed a crime was committed,” she said. “It doesn’t require that there be a conviction.”

No jury or judge has acquitted Buchli. With no statute of limitations on murder, charges could be filed again some day. “We are actively working the case,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

Baker does not want Buchli to regain his law license. Neither does Richard Armitage’s widow, Kathy Armitage.

Armitage, 49, was beaten to death in May 2000 in the 13th-floor office that he and Buchli shared in the Power Light Building.

They had been partners since 1995. Armitage specialized in health-care issues, including Medicare reimbursements for organ- and tissue-transplant agencies. Buchli specialized in civil litigation such as personal injury cases.

Prosecutors contended at trial that the killing was motivated by serious financial problems Buchli was having.

Trial testimony focused on spatters of Armitage’s blood found on Buchli’s shoes and clothing. Prosecutors argued that the evidence showed Buchli was the killer. The defense argued that the blood got on Buchli’s clothing as he tried to revive his partner.

Surveillance video from the building was another crucial piece of evidence. Prosecutors said it showed that Buchli had time to kill Armitage and clean up before leaving for lunch. Later, it was discovered that prosecutors had given the defense only a portion of the recording, not the full tape.

Buchli’s attorneys argued that the times reflected on the full tape showed that Buchli would have had little time to kill Armitage and clean up.

Because of the tape issue, a Jackson County judge threw out Buchli’s conviction after Buchli had served about five years of a life sentence. The judge’s ruling was upheld on appeal. In 2008, prosecutors began preparing to retry Buchli.

But his attorneys continued to complain that prosecutors were not sharing evidence that they were entitled to have.

In 2010, Nodaway County Circuit Judge Roger Prokes ordered the exclusion of all evidence. He took the evidence away as a sanction for the state’s continued failure to provide all its evidence to the defense, thus preventing Buchli from receiving a fair trial.

The appeals court upheld that ruling.

“There is unquestionably a societal interest in prosecuting cases of murder, but this does not give the state free reign to prosecute this defendant for an indefinite period of time, no matter how many decades it takes the state to comply with its legal obligations,” the appeals court ruled.

That left prosecutors with no evidence to present a jury.

One attorney who worked on Buchli’s behalf is not mentioned in Buchli’s online thanks. That lawyer, Richard Johnson, sued Buchli in August for $30,000 in unpaid legal fees. According to the lawsuit, Buchli agreed on April 1, 2010, to have Johnson work on his appeals.

“We are disappointed that Mr. Buchli has decided to contest his contractual obligations with our law firm,” Johnson said Monday. “We provided high-quality representation, hard work and creativity that resulted in an unprecedented dismissal of his murder charge. We look forward to resolving the case.”

Responding to the lawsuit, Buchli acknowledged that Johnson had assisted another attorney with the appeals but contended that Johnson had only agreed to serve as Buchli’s “primary media contact” and be paid with “publicity generated from his involvement” with the case.

Buchli noted that the 2010 agreement had “no value” and was executed “with the express understanding between Richard Johnson and (Buchli) that by its terms the documents would have no force or effect and that no party would seek to attempt to enforce the provisions of said document.”

Buchli contended that any money Johnson was to have received would have come from a lawsuit Buchli filed in 2008 against one of his previous criminal defense attorneys. But Buchli never served that lawsuit on the other lawyer and Buchli asked a Jackson County judge to dismiss the case just three months after he signed the agreement with Johnson.

Johnson, meanwhile, continued to work several more months on Buchli’s appeal, according to court documents.

Johnson’s pending lawsuit could affect Buchli’s request to reinstate his law license.

His petition is awaiting a report and recommendation that the Missouri Supreme Court requested from the state’s Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. The high court directed that the report should include information regarding Buchli’s “activities and employment” since his disbarment and “the status of any civil or criminal litigation.”

Buchli “needs to be able to work at full capacity in his chosen profession to be able to adequately support his needs and assure that he does not simply become a burden on our society,” according to court documents asking that his request be expedited.

Buchli has continued his legal education and has kept abreast of changes in the law and “remains committed to fair and ethical conduct toward all people in both his personal and professional life,” according to the documents.

Baker, the county prosecutor who inherited the case, said she has been asked to provide input to the disciplinary counsel for its report.

“We strongly oppose that,” Baker said of Buchli’s effort to regain his license.

The disciplinary council also has asked Kathy Armitage, the widow of Buchli’s slain law partner, to provide information for its report.

Armitage said that despite the dismissal of charges, she believes the jury that convicted Buchli got it right.

“There’s no way in hell he should become a lawyer again,” she said.