New trial ordered for man imprisoned for 25 years
A Wayne circuit judge Friday ordered a new trial for a 51-year-old man who has been in prison for 25 years, after he was convicted of murder because of what his attorneys insist was faulty evidence.
Desmond Ricks was released at noon Friday from the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, after Wayne Circuit Judge Richard Skutt granted the defense’s motion for a relief from judgment and granted a new trial. Wayne County prosecutors stipulated to the order.
“It’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m handling it,” Ricks said about being free.
Ricks’ 1992 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 ballistic testing.
After the audit, law enforcement officials expressed concern that years of Crime Lab employees carelessly handling evidence may have resulted in wrongful convictions. Ricks’ attorneys say his case is one such instance.
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 to 62 years in prison.
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 which 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 month 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 Thursday 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 which belonged to Ricks’ mother.
Both reports contradict the testimony of Detroit Police investigators during Ricks’ trial, who 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.
“In 1992 the police firearms expert and the defense firearms expert both testified at the trial and both agreed that the fired evidence came from the same gun,” Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said in a statement. “Many years later the defense expert for the first time said the bullets he examined could not have been from the morgue. This circumstance is something that has required serious review.”
Miller said prosecutors would lay out their position on the case at a June 1 hearing before Skutt.
David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic, said the Detroit cops switched the evidence, presenting bullets at trial that didn’t come from the victim’s body.
“They at least switched the bullets accidentally, if not intentionally,” Moran said. “The reports prove the bullets had to have been switched.”
At Ricks’ trial, Townshend, a retired state police forensic examiner, was hired by the court to examine the two bullets entered into evidence, to determine whether they’d been fired from Mary Ricks’ pistol. Townshend testified they had been fired from that gun.
Police had test-fired Mary Ricks’ pistol into a ballistics water tank, and because the bullets presented at trial showed the markings of having been shot through that gun, Townshend concluded were likely the bullets used to kill Bennett.
Following the Detroit Crime Lab scandal — and after Ricks contacted Townshend from prison and asked him to take another look at the case — the former state police firearms expert changed his mind.
Townshend said in a 2015 affidavit that the bullets provided by Detroit police for his court examination were likely not taken from Bennett’s body, because they didn’t have the elements of bullets that had penetrated a body.
“The two fired evidence bullets I received ... appeared to be in near pristine condition,” Townshend said in the affidavit. “The ... bullets failed to reveal the presence of trace evidence, e.g. blood, bone, hair, tissue, fabric or deformation that would be associated with bullets that had been fired into and removed from the skull and/or the body of a homicide victim.”
Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said in a statement: “In 1992 the police firearms expert and the firearms expert both testified at the trial and both agreed that the fired evidence came from the same gun. Many years later the defense expert for the first time said the bullets he examined could not have been from the morgue. This circumstance is something that has required serious review.”
Prior to Friday’s stipulation, prosecutors had rejected Townshend’s testimony. In a court filing, prosecutors wrote: “Since Townshend has examined countless spent bullets during his 47 years as a firearms examiner, it is possible that Townshend is merely mistaken about what he remembers.”
A second affidavit presented by Ricks’ defense team is from Oakland County Medical Examiner Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, who said the bullets removed from Bennett’s body were likely much smaller than the .38 caliber bullets “matched” to Mary Ricks’ gun.
In addition to the ballistics evidence, Innocence Clinic attorneys presented a 2014 affidavit from a restaurant employee who recanted her testimony that helped convict Ricks.
Arlene Strong testified at trial that Ricks might have been the shooter, but in the affidavit she claimed she was pressured by police to testify against Ricks, even though she knew he wasn’t the shooter.
“The way this case played out is very disturbing on many levels,” Moran said.