A Detroit man released from prison after serving 25 years on a wrongful murder conviction was awarded a $7.5 million settlement in his lawsuit against the city, adding to the questions raised about fraudulent practices of the city’s now-defunct crime lab.
Desmond Ricks, 56, served most of his 32-year sentence in the death of Gerry Bennett, who was shot and killed in a botched drug deal at the Top Hat restaurant in 1992. An analysis of two bullets recovered from Bennett’s body later revealed that they didn’t match bullets fired from a purported murder weapon that was linked to Ricks.
David Moran, director of the Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan Law School, said officials in the Detroit Police Crime Lab “committed multiple acts of fraud in order to frame” Ricks for the murder of Bennett, who was his friend.
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Moran said the case is one of many instances where people were convicted on faulty evidence produced by the Detroit Crime Lab. He said Michigan State Police should re-examine more cases handled by the crime lab before it was ordered to shut down in 2008 due to its shoddy work. Moran said there are likely many more wrongful convictions in Detroit that occurred from the 1980s through mid-2000s.
“The danger is that the forensics people in a police crime lab are co-opted, basically, to backup the police theory of who did it, even if the science doesn’t actually show that, and the Detroit Police Department Crime Lab is Exhibit A of that problem,” Moran said. “It’s an urban problem across the country, though I think Detroit is probably one of the worst. Much of the problem comes from the fact that there were decades when it’s fair to say that the Detroit police were out of control. They were doing lots of unconstitutional things.”
The City Council approved the $7.5 million settlement with Ricks this week. Ricks and his two adult daughters filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city seeking compensatory and punitive damages, arguing that now-retired DPD officers intentionally swapped out evidence to pin the murder on Ricks. Moran said it’s too late to hold those officers accountable.
“When we discovered the bullets and had them analyzed, I actually contacted the Michigan Attorney General’s office about the potential criminal liability of the people in the Detroit Crime Lab who framed Desmond Ricks and put him away for 25 years,” Moran said. “I was told that the statute of limitations had expired and nothing that could be done criminally to hold them accountable.”
In 2008, the Detroit Police Crime Lab was shut down after an MSP audit found rampant problems with how evidence was handled. Moran, who represents people who are wrongfully convicted and works to secure their release, said the audit revealed shocking abuses and an unacceptable rate of error. Moran said poor practices at the crime lab resulted in guilty verdicts for an untold number of innocent people.
“It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion,” Moran said. “This wasn’t carelessness, this was fraud going on, and they were matching bullets to guns in order to help secure convictions.”
The Innocence Clinic at UM has successfully overturned the convictions of 31 people who were wrongfully jailed across the state, Moran said.
In his 1992 trial, Ricks claimed he witnessed another man enter the Top Hat with Bennett while he remained in the car. When they exited the restaurant, Ricks said he saw the man point a chrome handgun at Bennett and shoot him in the stomach, then the head. Bennett was later pronounced dead upon his arrival at the hospital.
Ricks fled the scene, according to court documents, and police recovered a coat and hat that he took off while he ran into a nearby neighborhood. He was arrested two days later at his mother’s home, though officers did not have an arrest or search warrant. Police confiscated a Rossi .38 Special revolver owned by Ricks’ mother – she told police she slept with the handgun under her pillow – and the weapon was submitted as evidence in the murder.
Two bullets were recovered from an autopsy, which were put in separate envelopes and turned in to the Detroit Crime Lab. Police tested the confiscated handgun to compare the bullets with slugs removed from Bennett’s body. Though the bullets used to kill Bennett were heavily damaged, officers determined they matched those that were test fired.
Later in the trial, another test was done with oversight from a retired MSP firearms examiner at a lab in Mason, instead of the DPD Crime Lab. The expert testified that the “evidence bullets” he was given seemed “”too pristine” to have been recovered from Bennett’s body, but police assured him they were legitimate. A jury convicted Ricks of second-degree murder and felony firearm in 1992.
While imprisoned, Ricks contacted the firearms expert and asked him to take another look at the case. The expert signed an affidavit in 2015 – two decades after Ricks was convicted – saying photos of the bullets pulled from Bennett’s body did not match the “evidence bullets” that he’d originally examined. The Innocent Clinic also had asked a judge to reopen the case in light of the MSP audit on the Detroit Crime Lab.
The actual bullets tied to Bennett’s shooting were still in Detroit police storage all along. A MSP sergeant was tapped to re-evaluate the evidence and found the bullets did not come from the Rossi handgun belonging to Ricks’ mother. A new trial was ordered in 2017, resulting in Ricks being exonerated and released from prison.
Since Ricks’ conviction, Moran said DPD has implemented reforms and spent time under federal oversight, but there’s still people languishing in jail for crimes they did not commit.
“The Detroit Police Department is, we believe, a lot better institution than it was then,” Moran said. “But unfortunately, there’s still a lot of people in prison for very serious crimes based on investigations conducted by a police department that was really completely out of control.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order last year establishing a Task Force on Forensic Science to advise law enforcement officials and ensure the system delivers justice for Michigan residents.
The findings will recommend, among other things, methodology improvements, processes to address misconduct, and procedures to update stakeholders on developments in forensic science.
“It’s a blessing to be alive with my children and grandchildren,” Ricks told The Associated Press after the City Council approved the settlement Tuesday. “It was a blessing to not lose my life in there.”