October 12, 2012 http://www.usatoday.com
8:33PM EDT October 12. 2012 – A Tennessee judge on Friday overturned the conviction and death sentence of a man who has spent 14 years on death row over the killing of an ex-girlfriend whose body was never found.
A USA TODAY investigation last year showed that Memphis prosecutors responsible for the case never told the man, Michael Dale Rimmer, or his lawyers, about an eyewitness who had told the police that two different men were inside the office around the time she disappeared, and that both had blood on their hands. One of the men that the witness identified was already wanted in connection with a stabbing.
Document: Court order
Shelby County Judge James C. Beasley Jr. wrote in a 212-page order released late Friday afternoon that Rimmer’s trial lawyers repeatedly failed to unearth that evidence, a “devastating” blow to his contention that someone else committed the crime. That problem was compounded, the judge wrote, because the lead prosecutor in the case, Thomas Henderson, made “blatantly false, inappropriate and ethically questionable” statements to defense lawyers denying that the evidence existed.
The case is the latest black eye for prosecutors in Memphis, who have been faulted repeatedly for failing to disclose evidence that could be helpful to defendants. In 2008, for example, a federal appeals court blasted the office in another death penalty case for a “set of falsehoods” that was “typical of the conduct of the Memphis district attorney’s office.” At least two other cases handled by Henderson — who went on to supervise all of Memphis’ criminal prosecutions — have come under scrutiny over similar lapses.
Beasley on Friday accused Henderson of “purposefully” misleading Rimmer’s lawyers, and making “comments to counsel and the court were both intellectually dishonest and may have been designed to gain a tactical advantage.”
Still, Beasley wrote, that conduct alone wasn’t enough to overturn Rimmer’s conviction and death sentence, because his lawyers could have discovered the evidence on their own if they had looked more carefully. Instead, he said, it was the “seriously deficient” investigation by Rimmer’s “overburdened” lawyers that required him to order a new trial.
John Campbell, Shelby County’s deputy district attorney general, said Friday he had not read the entire order and could not comment on specific findings. But he said prosecutors would either appeal the decision or re-try Rimmer for Ricci Ellsworth’s murder. “I can’t imagine ever not re-prosecuting the case,” he said.
Rimmer’s new lawyer, Kelly Gleason, said she “happy and relieved that the court has set aside this unjust conviction.”
Ellsworth, Rimmer’s former girlfriend, disappeared from the office of a seedy Memphis motel where she worked as an overnight clerk in February 1997, leaving behind only an office and bathroom soaked with blood. Her body has never been located.
Rimmer, then 30, was the obvious suspect. The two had dated, but the relationship soured, and Rimmer eventually went to prison for raping her. There, other prisoners said, he repeatedly threatened to kill Ellsworth, suggesting that he could make sure she was not found. Rimmer was arrested in Indiana a month after Ellsworth disappeared; police there found blood on the back seat of the car he was driving that they later said was consistent with samples taken from the motel office and from Ellsworth’s mother.
Still, a witness who visited the motel office around the time Ellsworth disappeared told the police that he had seen two different men inside, both with blood on their hands. When FBI agents showed him photographs of possible suspects that included a photo of Rimmer, he picked out a different man, Billy Wayne Voyles, who was already wanted in connection with an unrelated stabbing.
Rimmer’s lawyers, Beasley wrote, were unaware of those facts, though they could have learned of the witness’ identification if they had reviewed the “residual” evidence in the court clerk’s vault. Instead, he wrote, they relied on Henderson’s repeated representations that no such evidence existed. As a result, he wrote, the jurors who found Rimmer guilty of the murder and sentenced him to die never heard about it.
That witness, James Darnell, told a court for the first time that he had seen one of the men carry what looked like a heavy object wrapped in a comforter out of the motel office and load it into the trunk of a car.