A Kentucky man who was released from prison after serving 28 years for murder died before his wrongful conviction lawsuit against the city of Newport and its police officers could go to trial.
William “Ricky” Virgil, a Black man, was convicted of murdering a White woman in 1987, according to WCPO. Virgil, on the other hand, has always maintained his innocence, claiming that he was framed by Newport police detectives. Thanks to DNA evidence, he was finally exonerated.
Virgil filed the complaint in 2016, and the civil trial was set to begin in August of that year. Judge David Bunning of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, however, granted permission for the case to be placed on hold so that the accused officers may submit an appeal. Because of qualified immunity, the officers claim they are immune from liability and a jury trial.
However, Virgil’s attorney, Elliot Slosar, described the appeal as frivolous and a ruse to prolong the case. He also stated that a year’s wait would be negative because Virgil might not be around. At the age of 69, Virgil died on January 2. According to WCPO, that was over six years after the still-pending complaint was filed.
“All William ever wanted was a day in court that was fair.” Slosar replied, “He never got that.” “The fact that William Virgil died before seeing justice is a reminder of how serious their wrongdoing is and how much they should pay for it.”
Marc Brandt and Norm Wagner, both former Newport police officers, are named as defendants in the action. Their lawyer, Jeff Mando, refuted Slosar’s claims regarding the appeal’s motivation.
“My clients’ strong belief that they have been wrongfully accused of depriving Mr. Virgil of a fair trial for the murder of Retha Welch is unaffected by Mr. Virgil’s sad death,” Mando stated. “They are certain that the facts and evidence will exonerate them and that justice will win because they are devoted law enforcement officers in the community with good service records.”
The appeal is being looked upon by the United States’ Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The outcome of the appeal will determine whether the civil trial may proceed next year. Even though Virgil won’t be present when the case goes to trial, Slosar said he’ll set up an empty seat in court for him.
“The racial undertones in how William Virgil was falsely convicted are fascinating. “You have a white victim who died tragically, and the cops buried the evidence against white alternate suspects in order to accuse a black man for a murder he did not do,” Slosar explained.
After being found guilty of killing Retha Welch, Virgil was sentenced to jail in 1988. On April 13, 1987, the 54-year-old woman, who worked as a psychiatric nurse and also did jail ministry, was discovered dead in her residence. Several stab wounds and a significant head injury were discovered on the deceased White woman. According to the WCPO, she was also raped.
While Welch was ministering to inmates, she met Virgil. Virgil claimed he had a sexual relationship with Welch, who was killed two months after Virgil was released from prison. A week later, Virgil was caught and charged with the murder of Welch. In 1988, he was found guilty by a jury after a trial that relied primarily on circumstantial evidence.
Virgil’s case was eventually taken up by the Kentucky Innocence Project. A demand for DNA testing in the case was granted in 2010. The order on a request for summary judgment noted, “DNA testing from the victim’s vaginal swab disqualified Virgil as a contributor, and… hairs discovered at the crime scene were found not to contain Virgil’s DNA.” This also cleared the way for the two accused officers’ cases to go to trial.
Because of the new evidence, Virgil was also given a fresh trial in 2015. Joe Womack, a crucial prosecution witness, recanted his evidence in 2016. Virgil had told Womack during their time as convicts that he had slain Welch, according to Womack’s testimony. Womack, on the other hand, claimed in a signed declaration that retired Newport police investigator Norman Wagner had provided him with information concerning the murder.
In a June 2021 order, Bunning noted, “Womack further alleged that Wagner had pressured him into testifying by threatening to charge him with accomplice culpability.” “Womack claims Wagner paid him in cash in advance of his testimony, and prosecutor Hoot Ebert promised to write a letter to the parole board in his favor,” according to Womack.
After Womack re-echoed those claims to a grand jury in 2016, they decided not to re-indict Virgil. Prosecutors eventually dropped the allegations against Virgil. “In his deposition, one of the cops admitted to paying the jailhouse informant cash. “For the 28 years that William was unfairly imprisoned, that was never recognized,” Slosar added.