A deceased man who spent over two decades in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of murder has been awarded a record-breaking $28 million settlement by the City of Newport, Kentucky.
According to WCPO, the settlement was finalized after William Virgil filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against the city and police in 2016. Though his civil trial was scheduled to be held in 2021, it was delayed to allow officers to file an appeal. Unfortunately, the exonerated man passed away in January 2022 – when the trial had not yet started.
Virgil was convicted in 1988 after he was found guilty of killing Retha Welch, but the evidence used against him in court was said to be circumstantial. He was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence after being incarcerated for 28 years. The deceased Black man has been awarded $1 million for each year he was wrongfully incarcerated.
Responding to the settlement, Virgil’s attorney, Elliot Slosar, said the feeling was bittersweet. He explained that though they are pleased Virgil’s family has gotten some sort of justice through the settlement, it was sad the exonerated man wasn’t alive to witness it.
“William couldn’t live long enough to see justice,” said Slosar. “William as a human being and William’s case will have caused significant change in the criminal justice system.”
The attorney also said his deceased client’s case cast a spotlight on racial injustice, WCPO reported. “Officers went out of their way to bury evidence that implicated white suspects,” he said. “And that left them with the ability to prosecute a Black man for a crime he didn’t commit.”
Tom Fromme, who is Newport’s city manager, told the news outlet that they “strongly believe that the Newport Police Department’s actions and conduct were appropriate and professional.” Fromme also explained that they “felt it was prudent to settle this case due to the current climate of anti-police sentiment and that the case was over 35 years old.”
Slosar, however, said that “regardless of whatever statement the City of Newport puts out, certainly there isn’t a world where the Newport police officers that are on that force today are not going to learn lessons from how not to do things from this case.”
The attorney also said he feels there’s still a long way to go, adding that the criminal justice system lags when it comes to dealing with wrongful convictions. “The system prioritizes finality with verdicts much more than it does the truth and newly discovered evidence and William’s case is a tragic example of what happens when the system moves too slow,” Slosar said.
“Yeah, you know, things were fixed here. William was exonerated. But he only had six years left in his life.” The cities of Cincinnati and Norwood also partook in the investigation into Virgil’s case. A lawsuit filed against both cities is still pending.