Murder case dropped for man after 25 years in prison

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Desmond Ricks heaved an audible sigh moments after Wayne County prosecutors agreed Thursday to drop murder charges against him.

“Well, that part’s over,” said Ricks, who spent 25 years in prison for a 1992 murder he didn’t commit.

Ricks and his attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Clinic say Detroit police intentionally switched bullets at his trial in an effort to convict him.

A Detroit Police internal affairs investigation into how officers handled the case is under way, Chief James Craig said Thursday.

Meanwhile, Ricks insists he isn’t bitter.

“I’ve got no time to be bitter at anybody,” he said after Thursday’s hearing in Wayne Circuit Court. “There’s no excuse for what they did, but I have to move on. I just didn’t want to die in prison. Now, I’m just trying to get some semblance of my life back. I just want to pay my taxes and be a good citizen.”

Wayne Circuit Judge Richard Skutt last week ordered Ricks released from prison and granted his request for a new trial after the Innocence Clinic showed evidence presented during his 1992 trial was tainted.

“Enjoy your newfound freedom,” Skutt told Ricks on Thursday, after Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Jason Williams announced his office was dropping the charges.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said Thursday in a statement: “After thoroughly examining the remaining evidence in the case we have concluded that we cannot proceed to trial, and today we agree that Mr. Ricks should be released.”

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 ballistic 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 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 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.

David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic, said Thursday police intentionally switched the evidence, presenting bullets at trial that didn’t come from the victim’s body.

“I don’t see how it can be anything but intentional,” he said. “That level of conduct is very serious ... if it happened in this case, it could have happened many other times.”

Craig met with Innocence Clinic representatives in March and pledged to help investigate how police handled cases that may have resulted in wrongful convictions. Craig said he directed the Public Integrity Section to look into the Ricks case before the judge’s decision to free him last week.

“If there’s an allegation of wrongdoing by past or current officers, we will investigate it and take the appropriate action,” Craig said. “And if there is wrongdoing, we will hold those individuals accountable.”

Moran said he plans to call on the state attorney general and Michigan State Police to investigate cases involving the Detroit Police Crime Lab. He said there are possibly hundreds of innocent people in prison because of tainted evidence.

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 they were likely the bullets used to kill Bennett.

“This was an incredible level of misconduct,” said Bill Proctor, former police officer and television news reporter, who is director of Proving Innocence, an advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted. “No police officer should create evidence, as is what happened in the case at hand.”

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 lacked 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.”

A second affidavit presented by Ricks’ 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.

Ricks on Thursday thanked those who helped exonerate him, including Claudia Whitman, director of the Colorado-based National Capital Crime Assistance Network. Whitman tracked down both Townshend and Strong.

“This is wonderful,” Whitman said.

Ricks’ civil attorney Wolfgang Mueller said his client is eligible for $1.25 million from the state, after Gov. Rick Snyder in March signed a bill giving exonerated prisoners $50,000 for each year served in prison.

“That doesn’t come close to compensating him for the loss of 25 years — but it’s a good first step,” Mueller said.

Ricks said he looks forward to reconnecting with his two daughters, one of whom was five days old when he went to prison.

“I just want to be a decent person and take advantage of the things people take for granted,” he said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN