The city of Detroit reached a multimillion-dollar settlement, putting an end to a lawsuit stating that three decades ago, members of its police force switched out bullets taken from a murder victim’s body in order to link the evidence to a suspect. The convicted man, who was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison at first, has always maintained his innocence and says he is “thankful” for the agreement.
Desmond Ricks, who was recently exonerated, spent the majority of his adult life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
On Sept. 23, 1992, the then-21-year-old was convicted of second-degree murder and illegal use of a firearm in the death of his friend Gerry Bennett, who was fatally shot outside the Top Hat restaurant in Detroit in March of that year, according to research compiled by University of Michigan Law School students.
He and his legal team appealed the decision, knowing he did not commit the crime. It was rejected. It would be another 25 years before a court agreed to look at old evidence with fresh eyes.
After years of hard work, students at the University of Michigan Law School’s Michigan Innocence Clinic and gun experts combed through the state’s evidence and crafted a defense that would be irrefutable to any judge, he was released from prison in 2017.
Now, after Ricks filed a lawsuit stating that DPD officers tampered with evidence crucial to his innocence, the city’s lawyers have agreed to settle for $7.5 million.
Ricks, now 56, is pleased with the outcome after the City Council approved the settlement on Tuesday, July 13.
“I’m not greedy. I’m thankful,” he said of the compensation The Associated Press reported.
During the investigation, police made these .38-caliber bullets central to the case, claiming that the murder weapon was Ricks’ mother’s gun, which he stole from her in order to kill Bennett. Experts testified that the bullets presented by the police in Wayne County Circuit Court in 1992 could not be the two “small lead slugs” recovered by a medical examiner from Bennett’s brain and spine.
However, the path to vindication was not easy.
The Michigan State Police shut down the Detroit police crime lab in 2008 after an audit revealed that the agency’s ballistics testing was wildly inaccurate. Claudia Whitman, founder of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, agreed to take on Ricks’ case two years later, armed with this information.
A change of opinion by David Townshend, a ballistics expert from Ricks’ original trial who testified to Ricks’ guilt at trial, was part of their discovery. Townshend now believes the bullets he examined during the trial were in “near pristine condition,” making them impossible to have been fired from the actual firearm, after meeting Ricks in prison in 2010. He noticed that the bullets were free of the blemishes that are usually associated with ammunition removed from the body of a murder victim. There was no hair, blood, bone, or human material on the bullets he was supposed to examine.
Townshend not only recanted his testimony, but he also assisted Whitman and her team in locating trial records and discovering that he had messed up with his notes on the case, further damaging Ricks’ original case.
Another extraordinary finding by the expert was that the evidence in the case was not sealed, leading him to believe that the actual bullets extracted from Bennet may have been swapped out.
The students began working on the case in 2012, and they received digital photographs of the actual bullets used in the crime in 2015. They delivered them to Townshend, who compared them to the ones he received during the trial and discovered that they were vastly different.
The bullets in the photo were “severely mutilated,” and he determined that they were so damaged from being fired and hitting Bennett that the ballistics team or police agency would have been unable to link them to a weapon.
To back up his theory, the Innocence Clinic contacted Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, Oakland County’s chief medical examiner, and asked him to re-examine the autopsy report. His conclusion was that because the slugs were described as “small” in the original ME, they were most likely .22- or .25-caliber bullets, ruling out the narrative that Ricks used his mother’s .38-caliber gun to murder Bennett.
As a result of their hard work, the late Judge Richard Skutt of the Third Circuit Court granted Ricks a new trial, according to CBS Detroit.
After reviewing the evidence, the city agreed that the bullet analysis from 1992 was incorrect, and the prosecution decided to drop all charges.
“It was layer upon layer upon layer of police misconduct,” said David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic, of the case. It was a truly heinous crime.”
In addition to the recent settlement, Ricks received over $1 million from the state for the wrongful conviction, with $50,000 awarded for each year he was imprisoned.
Ricks is relieved to be free and with his family.
“It’s a blessing to be alive with my children and grandchildren,” he said. “It was a blessing to not lose my life in there [prison].”
“I’m not angry. I’m not upset. I’m simply relieved. I’d like to get a job. “I want to pay taxes,” he said after the approval in an interview. “All I want is to be a normal citizen.”