Changing anger into a love for the law

Sunday, October 31, 2004

When something that has its roots in anger and hurt turns into love, it's almost certain that the journey from one to the other was not an easy one.

This past July, Teri Froemsdorf Armistead of Columbia, Mo., passed the bar exam. She said she was inspired to go to law school when she was a teenager watching special prosecutor Tim Finnical prosecute Jerome Mallett, the man who killed her father. Now she says she wants to use her legal skills to help troubled children.

Armistead is the daughter of slain Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper James Froemsdorf, who was killed in 1985 in the line of duty.

Her mother, Sarah Froemsdorf, of Cape Girardeau said Armistead's dream of being a lawyer started from anger and turned into love.

Armistead recalls sitting in the courtroom watching Finnical at work. Her mother allowed her to attend the two-week trial nearly a year following Froemsdorf's death. At the time, she said, Finnical was prosecuting Mallett not for murder, but for committing a crime against the state -- shooting a law enforcement officer. Mallett was sentenced to death March 7, 1986.

"He was beyond incredible," she said. "He made it personal. He brought my dad into it and made him a human being with a family."

Every day throughout the trial, she said, Finnical would explain to the family what was going on.

"At the time just being a teenager was hard enough," Armistead said. "I was extremely angry, grieving. I had never seen anybody fight so hard for another human being in my life. At that point I realized that's what I wanted to do, to have an impact on someone's life like he had on mine."

Sarah Froemsdorf recalled that her daughter "was a very angry little girl, to say the least. I can remember her sitting through that trial. She made the comment 'I want to be like Tim Finnical. I want to put bad guys where they belong -- in jail.'"

Finnical, now working in Taney County, said he remembers the Froemsdorf case like it was yesterday. He remembers the little girl who said she wanted to be like him, and was touched to hear that she went through with her plans to become a lawyer. When Mallett was found guilty and sentenced to death, Finnical said "she came up to me, thanked me and said 'when I grow up I'm going to become a prosecutor just like you.' That was the most moving experience I ever had. Her heart was broken, but she kept herself together."

Armistead's journey began the day in March when her father pulled over Mallett near Brewer in Perry County on a traffic stop. When he found that Mallett was wanted in Texas, he handcuffed him and was preparing to take him to the Perry County Jail when Mallet slipped a deformed wrist out of one of the cuffs, attacked Froemsdorf. Mallet grabbed the lawmen's gun and shot him to death.

"It was two days after she turned 13," her mother recalled, "and she had dreamed it two weeks before. That made it even worse. She's always been uncanny that way. She told her daddy and he said he would be careful, he would not let anything happen to him."

Armistead recounted how she and her mother heard the scanner traffic that night. Some family friends came over to stay with her and her sisters while her mother rushed to the hospital. Later, Sarah Froemsdorf returned with her husband's best friend.

"My mom told us that our dad would not come home again," she said. "Within 15 minutes it was on the news. The car was everywhere; the camera zeroed in on the car and the license plate. The hardest part was the reality."

Then came the funeral, where Armistead learned how many people would miss her father too.

"There was a man in Perryville my dad had arrested many times," she said. "He was into drugs, things like that. He walked in and went up to my dad's casket and saluted. He turned and nodded to my mother; he was crying. It was very touching."

Then there was the trial, and then the family had to move on.

Armistead went to the University of Missouri for two years, then came back and finished her undergraduate work at Southeast Missouri State University. While attending Southeast, she worked at the Cottonwood Treatment Center in Cape Girardeau.

'Another whole side'

"That's where I think she saw another whole side," Froemsdorf said. "That not all criminals know right from wrong. A lot of times they're born into it because of abuse. At that point she realized she needed to know both sides of the story."

It's also where she met her husband Joe Armistead of Sullivan, Mo. Her mother said that working at Cottonwood spurred Armistead to go on to law school. Law school was interrupted by the birth of their daughter, Savannah, now 3.

On July 11, 2001, Jerome Mallett was executed for killing James Froemsdorf. Armistead said that after seeing how hard Finnical worked to prosecute Mallett, she decided that she didn't really care if he was executed. It was enough to see Finnical's effort on behalf of her family. She thought about going to the execution for more than a month, she said. She had just given birth and she wanted to move on, not think about Jerome Mallett and how her father died.

"My mother decided to go and I decided I should be there for her," Armistead said. "I am very glad I went, not to see him die, but before he died he looked at my sisters and my mom and said he was sorry. It was complete closure for me at that moment for him to acknowledge us and realize that he had hurt more lives than just my dad's, and to apologize. At that moment it was over for me."

Her mother said she is not sure Armistead has forgiven Mallett, "but she has learned there are other sides to criminals. She is a little more objective now than back then."

While in law school Armistead worked as an intern for Cape Girardeau County prosecuting attorney Morley Swingle.

"I always knew she had tremendous empathy in working with crime victims," Swingle said. "It is easy to understand why."

Armistead graduated from law school in May, studied nonstop for six weeks then took the bar and passed it on the first try in July. In September, she was sworn in by Judge Richard Webber, the judge who presided over Mallett's trial.

Now she's trying to find a job. She said she'd like to draw on her own experience and on what she learned working at Cottonwood and work in some capacity as a child advocate or work in juvenile court. She still wants to be a prosecutor. Her plans now must coincide with her husband's -- he is a state trooper working in Boone County. Her plans also include another child due next spring. It's been a long journey, but a successful one.

"Needless to say," Sarah Froemsdorf said, "this kid has come a long hard way."

335-6611, extension 160

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