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Michigan Innocence Clinic Files Motion in Case Affected by Detroit Crime Lab

By Katie Vloet
June 1, 2016

The Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School today [June 1] filed a motion for relief from judgment in the case of Desmond Ricks, who, in 1992, was found guilty of murdering his friend outside a Detroit restaurant and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

According to the Innocence Clinic’s motion, new evidence suggests that the bullets used in the murder could not have been fired from a gun belonging to Ricks’ mother, contrary to the prosecution’s argument in the case and to the findings of the now-defunct Detroit Police Department Crime Lab ballistics unit. The Crime Lab closed in 2008 after an audit conducted by the Michigan State Police found widespread errors in its ballistic tests.

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. Ricks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In recent years, however, new evidence has emerged that undermines the credibility of that evidence and instead suggests that the bullets that killed Bennett could not have been fired from the gun belonging to Ricks’ mother.

David Townshend, an independent forensic examiner appointed by the court before trial, has provided a sworn affidavit that strongly suggests the bullets the Detroit Police Department provided to him for examination were not the actual bullets taken from Bennett’s body. An affidavit from Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, the chief medical examiner for Oakland County, further indicates that the bullets removed from Bennett’s body were likely much smaller than the .38 caliber bullets “matched” to the alleged murder weapon.

Today’s motion requests new testing of the ballistics evidence. “This is really a modest request for the bullets to be reexamined because of flaws in the initial ballistics testing,” said David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “We have strong reason to believe that the bullets matched to Mr. Ricks’ mother’s gun were not the bullets used in the murder of Gerry Bennett.”

In addition to the ballistics evidence, a witness who was inside the Top Hat restaurant testified at trial that Ricks might have been the shooter but now says she knew at the time of the trial that her testimony was false. The witness, Arlene Strong, a former employee of the Top Hat who was working inside the restaurant at the time of the shooting, says she is confident Ricks wasn’t the killer. In a 2014 affidavit, she stated that she felt pressured to testify that Ricks could have been the killer even though she knew that wasn’t the truth.

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