Exonerated man who spent 28 years in prison for murder dies before wrongful conviction trial begins

Francis Akhalbey March 30, 2022
William “Ricky” Virgil was exonerated after spending 28 years in prison for murder -- Image via WCPO

A Kentucky man who was freed after spending 28 years in prison for murder passed away before a wrongful conviction lawsuit he filed against the city of Newport and police could go to trial.

According to WCPO, William “Ricky” Virgil, a Black man, was convicted of murdering a White woman in 1987. But Virgil had always maintained his innocence and claimed Newport police detectives had framed him. He was finally exonerated thanks to DNA evidence.

The lawsuit in question was filed by Virgil in 2016, and the civil trial was scheduled to proceed last August. However, U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning gave the green light for the case to be put on hold so the accused officers could file an appeal. The officers argue they cannot face liability or a jury trial because of qualified immunity.

But Elliot Slosar, who is Virgil’s attorney, referred to the appeal as frivolous and a way to delay the case. He also highlighted that a year-long delay was unfavorable as it was possible Virgil wouldn’t be alive. Virgil passed away on January 2 at the age of 69. That was almost six years after the still-pending lawsuit was filed, WCPO reported.

“All William ever wanted was a fair day in court. He never got that,” said Slosar. “The fact that William Virgil couldn’t live to see justice is a reminder of how grave their misconduct is and how much they should pay for it.”

The former Newport police officers named as defendants in the lawsuit are Marc Brandt and Norm Wagner. Their attorney, Jeff Mando, denied Slosar’s allegations about the motive behind the appeal.

“Mr. Virgil’s unfortunate death does not impact my clients’ fervent belief that they have been falsely accused of depriving Mr. Virgil of a fair trial for the murder of Retha Welch,” Mando said. “As dedicated law enforcement officers in the community with excellent service records, they are confident that the facts and evidence will vindicate them, and that justice will prevail.”

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is looking into the appeal. A decision on the appeal will determine if the civil trial could go ahead next year. And though Virgil wouldn’t be around when the lawsuit goes to trial, Slosar said he’ll reserve an empty chair for the deceased man in court.

“There’s such interesting racial undertones with how William Virgil got wrongfully convicted. You have a white victim who suffered a tragic death and the police buried the evidence against white alternate suspects to frame a black man for a crime he did not commit,” Slosar said.

Virgil was sentenced to prison in 1988 after he was found guilty of killing Retha Welch. The 54-year-old woman, who was a psychiatric nurse and also did jail ministry, was found dead in her apartment on April 13, 1987. The deceased White woman was found with several stab wounds and a severe head injury. She was also raped, per WCPO.

Welch and Virgil met while she was ministering to inmates. Welch was killed two months after Virgil was released from prison, and Virgil said he had a sexual relationship with her. Virgil was arrested and charged with killing Welch over a week later. He was ultimately convicted by a jury in 1988, and the trial solely relied on circumstantial evidence.

The Kentucky Innocence Project ultimately took up Virgil’s case. In 2010, a motion for DNA testing in the case was approved. “DNA testing from the victim’s vaginal swab excluded Virgil as a contributor and … hairs recovered at the crime scene were found not to contain Virgil’s DNA,” the order on a motion for summary judgment stated. This also gave the go-ahead for the case against the two accused officers to go to trial.

Virgil was also granted a new trial in 2015 because of the new evidence. In 2016, a key prosecution witness, Joe Womack, recanted his testimony. Womack had initially testified that Virgil had told him he had killed Welch during their time together as inmates. But in a written affidavit, Womack revealed former Newport police detective Norman Wagner had provided him with information about the murder.

“Womack further alleged that Wagner had coerced him into testifying by threatening to charge him with accomplice liability,” Bunning stated in a June 2021 order. “According to Womack, Wagner paid him in cash in advance of his testimony and prosecutor Hoot Ebert promised to write a letter in his favor to the parole board.”

A grand jury opted not to re-indict Virgil after Womack re-echoed those claims to them in 2016. The charges against Virgil were later dismissed by prosecutors. “One of the officers admitted in his deposition that he paid the jailhouse informant cash. That was never known for the 28 years that William spent wrongfully incarcerated,” Slosar said.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: March 30, 2022


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