Man cleared of murder leaves Ionia prison after 25 years

Desmond Ricks
An undated mug shot of Desmond Ricks. (Michigan Department of Corrections)

IONIA, Mich. (AP) — A Detroit man has walked out of an Ionia prison after 25 years, after tests showed he was convicted of murder with sham evidence.

Desmond Ricks, now 51, met his legal team Friday at the Richard A. Hanlon Correction Facility a few hours after a judge threw out his conviction.

The Innocence Clinic at University of Michigan law school asked Judge Richard Skutt to reopen the case after prosecutors in 2015 turned over photos of two bullets removed from Gerry Bennett. The bullets were in poor shape and didn’t resemble the pristine bullets that were presented as evidence by Detroit police in 1992.

Police at that time said a gun belonging to Ricks’ mother was the murder weapon, but new tests now have ruled out any connection, Innocence Clinic director David Moran said.

One of the bullets doesn’t match the gun, and the other bullet was too mutilated for a thorough analysis, he said.

“Ricks was a great advocate for his own cause,” Moran said. “What he was saying seemed to be outlandish: The Detroit police crime lab would not only make mistakes but switch bullets. It wasn’t outlandish — it was true. This outlandish conduct cost Desmond Ricks 25 years.”

The crime lab was shut down after a 2008 audit revealed sloppy work, including the botched analysis of gun evidence.

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office agreed that Ricks’ second-degree murder conviction should be set aside. It’s possible that he could face a second trial but that seems unlikely. Spokeswoman Maria Miller said the next move will be discussed in court on June 1.

The law school has exonerated 10 people and freed four others since 2009 by exposing bad police work in Michigan, finding new witnesses and tapping specialists.

In 1992, Ricks was with Bennett when Bennett was shot in the head outside a burger joint. Ricks said he ran away, dodging gunfire. But a few days later, police pinned the slaying on him and seized his mother’s gun.

“I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had nothing to do with this,” Ricks told The Associated Press earlier this year. “They switched the bullets on me.”

Ricks had a key ally in his bid to reopen the case: an independent firearms expert who was involved in the ’92 trial. He found David Townshend’s name in a law journal in 2009 and wrote to him from prison.

Townshend agreed to help. He recalled that the bullets originally presented to him by police appeared to be in excellent shape with no trace of blood, bone or hair that would suggest they were removed from the victim’s brain and spine.

Townshend said they didn’t resemble the actual bullets that were locked away in police storage and produced just two years ago.

“Townshend’s a hero,” Moran said. “He was willing to put his reputation on the line.”