In August 1979, Kristy Ringler was found unconscious, lying across a highway in White Cloud, Michigan. She died a few hours later. An autopsy concluded that Ringler died from two blows to her head, and that her death could have been either a homicide or the result of being hit by a car.
Larry Pat Souter was the last person known to have seen Ringler before she was found in the road. Souter had met Ringler at a bar earlier that night and, after the bar closed, the two went to a party at a nearby house. Souter was drinking heavily. He told police that he and Ringler had gone outside together, and that she had said she was going home and began walking along the highway. Souter tried to persuade her to return to the party and get a ride, but he gave up after a few minutes and returned to the party.
When people at the party learned Ringler had been found lying on the highway, they went to the scene. Police questioned Souter that evening, but did not arrest him. The next day, police found a whiskey bottle that Souter had discarded while on the way to the scene. A trace of blood was found on the label, which the lab determined was type “A” blood, the same type as both Ringler and Souter. Souter admitted the bottle was his, but swore he had nothing to do with Ringler’s death, and said that the blood had come from a cut on his finger. Police recovered particles of glass from Ringler’s clothes that the lab determined were not from a car’s headlights. A forensic pathologist consulted by the police told them that, in his opinion, Ringler’s injuries were a result of being struck by a car, rather than a homicide. Based on the evidence collected, the Newaygo County prosecutor decided not to file charges against Souter or anyone else.
Nonetheless, the chief investigative officer on the case, Detective Charles Foster, concluded that Ringler could not have been hit by a car because her body appeared to be placed in the road and no blood or debris were found on her clothing. In 1983, Foster presented the case to the county medical examiner, who concluded that the whiskey bottle the police had found could have caused Ringler’s injuries. Despite the report from the medical examiner, the county prosecutor again declined to bring charges against Souter.
In 1991, a newly elected sheriff committed his office to solving old homicide cases, including Ringler’s. Though deputies re-interviewed many of the witnesses, no new evidence was discovered. The medical examiner again reviewed the evidence, and this time concluded that Ringler’s injuries were caused by a blow from the whiskey bottle. In November 1991, 12 years after Ringler’s death, Souter was arrested for murder.
At Souter’s trial in 1992, the medical examiner testified that the bottle had had a sharp edge in 1979 and at the preliminary examination in 1991, but that the edge had somehow lost its sharpness by the time of trial. Two other forensic pathologists also testified that Ringler’s injuries were consistent with being struck by the whiskey bottle. The original forensic pathologist that police had consulted in 1979 testified for the defense, stating that he believed Ringler was hit by a car and the bottle could not have been the murder weapon. The defense also presented evidence that supported Souter’s story. The owner of the house where the party took place testified that Souter had asked her for a bandage that evening because he had cut his finger on the broken door handle. Two witnesses testified that it was not unusual for Ringler to leave without telling anyone and to walk home. Another witness testified that when Souter returned to the party, he was not acting abnormally, sweating, or breathing hard, and there was no blood visible on his clothing. Nonetheless, in March 1992, a jury convicted Souter of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 20-to-60 years in prison.
Souter appealed his conviction, arguing that the delay in prosecuting his case denied him due process, but the Michigan state courts ultimately found that he was not prejudiced by the delay. In 2002, Souter filed a federal habeas corpus petition which included: evidence from the bottle manufacturer, from a forensic technician, and from a former police laboratory technician that the whiskey bottle did not have a sharp edge in 1979; affidavits from two of the prosecution’s forensic pathologists recanting their trial testimony and saying that Ringler’s injuries were likely not caused by the bottle; and newly found photographs that showed Ringler’s clothes soaked in blood. The State of Michigan filed a motion to dismiss the petition because it had not been filed within the one year time period allowed by the applicable statute of limitations, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in January 2005 that Souter had presented a sufficiently strong claim of actual innocence to overcome the usual requirements of timeliness, and ordered the district court to hold a hearing on his petition.
After the Sixth Circuit ruling, a former resident of Newaygo County who read about the decision in the newspapers came forward and told the police that she thought her father had been involved in a hit-and-run on the night of Ringler’s death. The side-view mirror on his motor home had been broken that night and he would not say how it was damaged. She had told police about the mirror in 1979, and when he was interviewed by police, her father had admitted he was driving on the highway where Ringler was found at about the time that she was walking home. However, police failed to investigate further, and Souter’s attorney never received this information.
As a result of this new evidence, Souter filed a motion for immediate and unconditional release, which the prosecution did not oppose. His motion was granted by a federal district court judge in April 2005. In December 2005, a Newaygo County Circuit Court judge vacated Souter’s conviction. During his 13 years in prison, Souter was unable to pay the child support he owed to his ex-wife for their two children. By the time he was released, his children were adults, but under federal law, he still owed $23,000 in back support and another $15,000 in interest and penalties.
- Stephanie Denzel