Freedom: Innocence Clinic client is exonerated


University of Michigan Law Professor David Moran congratulates Innocence Clinic client Desmond Ricks, freed after 25 years in prison.

Photo courtesy of U-M Law

By U-M Law

After serving 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Desmond Ricks is now a free man. On June 1, the Wayne County prosecutor’s office dropped all charges against Ricks, who was convicted of murder in 1992 and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School secured Ricks’s release last week, pending a new trial. Now the prosecutor’s office has confirmed it will not be seeking that new trial.
Ricks originally was charged with murdering his friend outside a Detroit restaurant. Following re-examination of evidence at the clinic’s urging, tests showed that the conviction relied on false evidence, and prosecutors agreed the conviction should be overturned. Judge Richard Skutt signed the order on May 26.

“It’s a great day for Mr. Ricks, who always maintained his innocence and has been shouting in the wind for 25 years,” said  David Moran, ’91, co-founder of the Michigan Innocence Clinic and clinical professor of law.

On March 3, 1992, Ricks rode in his friend Gerry Bennett’s car to the Top Hat restaurant in Detroit. Ricks waited in the car while Bennett and a man from another car went inside the restaurant. Ricks said that when the two men left the restaurant five to 10 minutes later, he saw in the rearview mirror the man from the other car holding a chrome gun in his hand. Ricks said he saw the man shoot Bennett once in the stomach, leading Ricks to jump out and run from the car. The man then shot Bennett in the head, Ricks said. The shooter then fired several shots toward Ricks, but missed. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting other than Ricks.

The prosecution developed a case against Ricks that relied heavily on evidence from the now-defunct Detroit Police Department Crime Lab ballistics unit, which linked the bullets recovered from Bennett’s body to a .38 caliber revolver belonging to Ricks’ mother. In recent years, however, new evidence emerged that undermined the credibility of that evidence and instead suggested that the bullets that killed Bennett could not have been fired from the gun belonging to Ricks’s mother.

In addition, David Townshend, an independent forensic examiner appointed by the court before trial, provided a sworn affidavit that strongly suggested the bullets the Detroit Police Department provided to him for examination were not the actual bullets taken from Bennett’s body.

In 2016, the clinic, with the affidavit from Townshend, filed a motion urging a judge to order new tests on evidence still in police storage and throw out Ricks’s second-degree murder conviction. The motion was granted and tests demonstrated that one of the two bullets was too mangled for analysis, but the second that was removed from the victim does not match the gun that was used to convict Ricks in 1992.
“When we got the order from the judge ordering ballistic testing, and were able to tell Mr. Ricks about that, it was incredible to hear his excitement,” said Rami Sherman, a student-attorney who graduated in May and has worked closely with the client for the last year. “And now he will be released. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”

Added Moran, “This is a vindication for David Townshend, who went out on a limb and had the courage to say the bullets were switched and that caused him to give false results. It’s also vindication for our students, who believed in this case and encouraged us to take it. We had a hard time believing it ourselves—that they [the now shuttered crime lab] could be so brazen as to switch bullets. The students convinced us that there was something to this case, and that we should take it. They were right.”

The Michigan Innocence Clinic, established in 2009, works to free those who have been wrongly convicted and focuses on cases where there is no DNA to test. Desmond Ricks is the 16th client to be freed by the clinic's efforts, and is the clinic’s 12th full exoneration. Those clients collectively served approximately 205 years in prison before being freed.