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Detroit man's exoneration for 1992 murder raises the possibility of injustice on a larger scale

Desmond Ricks in court after charges against him were officially dismissed. He was exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for murder.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Desmond Ricks in court after charges against him were officially dismissed. He was exonerated after spending 25 years in prison for murder.

After spending 25 years in prison for murder, Desmond Ricks was officially exonerated Thursday.

Wayne County prosecutors admitted in court they simply don’t have the evidence to re-try Ricks for the 1992 shooting death of his friend Gerry Bennett outside a Detroit restaurant.

Ricks was convicted based mainly on ballistics evidence. Detroit Police said the bullets removed from the victim were a match to Ricks’ mother’s gun, and a Michigan State Police expert confirmed that finding.

But in 2008, the Detroit police crime lab was shut down after an audit found it was riddled with problems, including mishandling of evidence. And Ricks seized on that opportunity to try and prove his innocence.

He convinced activist Claudia Whitman, who tracked down David Townsend, the now-former MSP forensics expert who had confirmed the bullet match. Townsend visited Ricks in prison, telling him he had always been suspicious of the bullet Detroit police had given him — it seemed too pristine to have come from a body. Now, Townsend suspects that police actually gave him a bullet test-fired from Ricks’ mother’s gun.

Armed with an affidavit from Townsend and additional evidence, Whitman took her findings to the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic. In June of 2016, they asked the court to re-open Ricks’ case based on the new information.

Meanwhile, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office launched its own re-examination of Ricks’ case in September. New findings that emerged in the following months led Judge Richard Skutt to overturn Ricks’ convictions last week.

When prosecutors confirmed Thursday they were dropping charges against Ricks due to “insufficient evidence,” Skutt praised attorneys on both sides for their efforts on Ricks’ behalf.

“Enjoy your newfound freedom,” Skutt told Ricks, who replied, “Thank you, your honor.”

Outside court, Ricks said he was still overwhelmed by the turn of events. He’s happy to “just be a citizen” again, and plans to “take care of myself, and take care of my family, as best I can.”

Ricks said he looks forward to reconnecting with his two grown daughters, the youngest of whom was just days old when he went to prison, and getting to know his grandchildren. He doesn’t intend to linger over the injustice he suffered, and says he’ll leave any efforts to pursue accountability to his attorneys.

“I don’t have time to be a bitter old man,” said Ricks, now 52. “I don’t have time to be angry, and mad.… I just want to live. I want to live, I want to be a decent person, and just, you know, take things slow for right now.”

Innocence Clinic director David Moran said Ricks’ case is an especially “egregious example” of widespread failures and wrongdoing in Detroit’s police department at that time.

Moran called on Michigan State Police and Attorney General Bill Schuette to “do a much larger investigation and re-investigation of cases” that went through the city’s crime lab in the early 1990s.

“I have a very hard time imagining how [MSP forensic expert] Townsend got the wrong bullet sent to him unintentionally,” Moran said. “It’s really hard to avoid the conclusion that this was a clear effort to cover up the fact that they had fabricated a false match in the first place.”

Moran called that level of misconduct “extremely serious, and I believe criminal.” He said it might be difficult to criminally charge those responsible at this point, but Schuette and state law enforcement have an obligation to find out if others suffered the same fate as Ricks.

“If it happened once, it would be very surprising if there’s not a lot of other cases just like it,” Moran said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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