A judge on Wednesday awarded $1 million to a Detroit man who spent 25 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder based on faulty ballistics evidence.
Desmond Ricks was awarded the money under a Michigan law that compensates people who are wrongly convicted. Tests last year showed that bullets recovered from the victim didn’t match the gun that was presented at trial in 1992.
“Desmond appreciates that there’s a law that gives him some money for his wrongful conviction, but it’ll never give him back those years he spent in prison,” Ricks’ attorney Wolf Mueller said.
Mueller also is representing Ricks in a $125 million federal lawsuit against Detroit police officers, claiming they fabricated evidence. Mueller said he’ll start taking depositions in that case next month.
The 51-year-old Ricks was released from prison last May. Minutes after the court hearing in which Wayne County prosecutors agreed to drop charges against him, Ricks told The Detroit News: “I’ve got no time to be bitter at anybody. There’s no excuse for what they did, but I have to move on ... I’m just trying to get some semblance of my life back.”
Michigan Court of Claims Judge Michael Talbot signed off on the $1 million payment Wednesday.
Mueller believes his client is entitled to an additional $216,000 and plans to appeal.
The attorney said Ricks had been convicted of robbery in 1987 and was on parole when he was arrested in the 1992 slaying, which resulted in him serving four extra years in prison after his murder conviction.
“He was found innocent of the murder, which was the reason he supposedly violated his parole on the robbery, but they won’t compensate him for the four years, even though he wasn’t guilty of parole violation,” Mueller said. “It’s an absurd result, to try to reduce his compensation for that.”
“I think the judge misinterpreted the statute,” Mueller said. “We will certainly appeal his decision.”
Wayne County prosecutors agreed last spring to drop murder charges against Ricks.
Ricks and his former attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Clinic say Detroit police intentionally switched bullets at his trial in an effort to convict him.
Ricks’ second-degree murder conviction was based in large part on bullets processed by the Detroit Police Crime Lab, which closed in 2008 after a Michigan State Police audit found widespread errors in ballistics testing.
Detroit police detectives claimed the bullets they presented as evidence during Ricks’ trial were fired from his mother’s .38-caliber pistol on March 3, 1992, resulting in the death of Gerry Bennett outside a Detroit Top Hat restaurant. Ricks was convicted and sentenced to 32-62 years.
But in 2015, after Innocence Clinic attorneys filed a motion for a new trial, Wayne County prosecutors sent the defense pictures of the bullets that had been removed from Bennett’s body — photos that did not match the bullets that had been used to convict Ricks, according to David Townshend, the ballistics expert who testified at the 1992 trial.
A state police report completed last spring concluded the bullets taken from the victim’s body were too mangled for investigators to have determined which gun was used to fire them.
A second state police report, which used a different ballistics testing technique than the method used in the first state police test, was released in May to Ricks’ attorneys. It concluded one of the bullets removed from the victim had been fired from a different gun than the Rossi .38-caliber revolver that belonged to Ricks’ mother.
Both reports contradict the testimony of Detroit Police investigators during Ricks’ trial. They claimed the bullets they presented at trial were removed from the victim’s body, and that they had been fired from Ricks’ mother’s pistol.
Under the state’s Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act of 2016, the state pays $50,000 per year an ex-inmate spent in prison for crimes he or she did not commit.
Under the state law, if wrongfully-convicted plaintiffs win lawsuits awarding them more than they got from the state, they must reimburse the state for the difference.
Earlier this month, Davontae Sanford was awarded $408,000 after spending more than eight years in prison for four homicides he says he didn’t commit. Sanford was arrested in 2007 at age 14 and convicted a year later after he says he was tricked into a confession and guilty plea by detectives and his attorney.
Sanford also has a pending federal lawsuit against Detroit. His attorney Julie Hurwitz said there was no specific monetary demand in the suit, but pointed out juries award an average of $1 million for each year served in prison.
However, Konrad Montgomery, who spent nearly three years in prison for armed robbery and felony assault with intent to commit murder until he was released in July 2016, said he’s still waiting for his payoff.
“There’s a snag with a court rule,” said Montgomery, who was released from prison after the Michigan Court of Appeals found Wayne County prosecutors misrepresented phone evidence during Montgomery’s trial.
Montgomery’s claim for compensation was closed Jan. 8 because his attorney filed the claim too late, he said.
“There’s a Michigan court rule that says anyone suing the state of Michigan for personal injury or property damage has six months to do so,” said Montgomery, referencing Michigan Law 600.6431. “We filed our claim about seven months after the law went into effect, and they’re saying that’s a violation.”
Montgomery said he eventually expects to be paid about $140,000 for the time he spent in prison.
“I’m positive that rule won’t supersede the compensation law, but they’re closing cases without having hearings,” he said. “They should have had a hearing before dismissing my case, since this is a new law and things still have to be worked out.
“That money would be a great boost to putting my life back together,” Montgomery said. “I was banking on it. That’s not a lot of money, but you can get your house and car paid off for sure.”
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