Desmond Ricks leaned against a wall, as his family — many he was just beginning to get to know – milled about him. They cooed over Ricks newborn great nephew, Juan Jr., and made small talk about the fit of a good suit. The chatter — lighthearted and casual — was one that is typically expected when a family gets together. But the reasoning behind this reunion was anything but carefree.
In June, after 25 years in prison, Ricks was exonerated for a murder he did not commit. Now home, getting to know a family he barely knows, Ricks is grateful but also still seeking justice.
That is why on Thursday, he and his family gathered in a nondescript Farmington Hills office suite where, with the help of attorney Wolfgang Mueller, they filed a $125 million civil rights lawsuit. Seeking compensatory and punitive damages under federal and state law, the lawsuit names the 51-year-old and his two adult daughters, Akilah Cobb, 32, and Desire’a Ricks, 25, as plaintiffs; Desire’a was only five days old when her father was arrested for the murder, Akilah was seven-years-old.
As defendants, the case names two retired Detroit police officers: David Pauch, the evidence technician on the case, and Donald Stawiasz, the officer in charge of the investigation that led to Ricks' wrongful conviction. The lawsuit argues that the duo framed Ricks by fabricating bullet evidence — swapping out the bullets taken from the victim's body with bullets test-fired from a gun belonging to Ricks' mother.
"I was fighting from the beginning. When I was arrested, I knew I wasn't guilty, I just had to convince the police of this — which I shouldn't have had to do, but that was my job at that time. They weren't seeing it any other way," said Ricks at the news conference, noting that prison was hell. "It took me a long time, once I was incarcerated, to find someone to finally believe this happened to me, that the police did something."
In March 1992, 21-year-old Gerry Bennett was fatally shot while standing outside of since close burger chain in Detroit. Bennett's friend, Ricks, was arrested two days later for the crime.
A .38-caliber revolver, kept under his mother Mary Ricks' pillow, was confiscated. The case against Ricks rested heavily on the evidence of the gun and the bullets inside, which the prosecution — by way of the investigation by the Detroit Police Department officers — claimed matched those removed from Bennett's body.
Pauch, one of the defendants in the recently filed civil lawsuit, testified as an expert in ballistics, stating that the two bullets in evidence were fired from Mary Ricks' Rossi .38 Special handgun and from "no other weapon." He claimed that the bullets that killed Bennett matched Ricks' mom's gun "like a fingerprint."
Stawiasz "furthered the conspiracy," according Ricks' attorneys. They allege that Stawiasz provided the bullets test-fired from the Rossi handgun to David Townshend, a court-appointed expert and retired Michigan State Police firearms identification expert.
"When Townshend questioned whether the bullets were actually from the victim’s body, Stawiasz assured him that they were," a news release from Mueller Law Firm explains.
In closing arguments, the prosecution stressed the importance of the ballistic evidence, calling it "the most powerful evidence" in the case.
“This gun that killed Gerry Bennett was found at his house,” the prosecutor declared in closing arguments.
In Septemeber 1992, a Wayne Circuit Court jury convicted Ricks of second-degree murder and illegal use of a firearm. He was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
While the Detroit police crime lab, which helped lead to Ricks' conviction, was shut down in 2008 after an audit performed by MSP highlighted sweeping errors in ballistics testings. But Ricks remained in prison — his appeals denied.
"My most motivating factor was I didn't want to die in there," Ricks said. "That was the thing that kept me going, I didn't want to die in there and I did everything I could to get myself to this position I am in now. I never stopped."
In 2015, the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic, which had been working on the case since 2012, obtained photographs, through a Freedom of Information Act request, of the actual bullets that came from Bennett's body. The clinic sent the photos to Townshend, the court-appointed ballistics expert from Ricks' 1992 trial. Townshend gave an affidavit asserting that the photos did not show the same bullets Stawiasz had given him.
As a result, the Innocence Clinic got the case re-opened.
In April 2017, a Michigan State Police firearms expert revealed that the bullets seen in the photograph were classified differently from the ones that would have come from a .38 caliber handgun; more specifically they found that the bullets that were removed from Bennett's body, a 5R, could not come from a .38 Caliber gun, which shoots 6Rs. "... a fact Pauch knew in 1992," a press release from the Mueller firm stated.
"This case on its surface should have never even gotten beyond the test shot phase, that's what surprises me the most," said David Balsah, a retired Michigan State Police detective who helped to shut down the Detroit police crime lab in 2008, and was retained as a ballistics expert for this case. "It should have been dismissed the day they took the test shots from the 6R revolver. That does surprise me a great deal that it went on this far."
A month after the Michigan State Police testing, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office joined the defense in a motion to vacate Ricks's convictions and to release him. All charges were dismissed on June 1 — days earlier, on May 26, Ricks returned home for the first time in 25 years.
"You have to understand I was 26 when I went in there so it's like there is a 26 (year old) person still inside of me, that still wants to hang out, and do different things, but I have to understand I am not 26 anymore I am 51," Ricks said, noting how much he had missed out in the years he had been wrongly incarcerated.
Getting out means also re-bonding with family members, like daughter Akilah Cobb, who is a named plaintiff in the case, and was seven-years old when her dad was wrongly convicted.
"From seven-year-old, up until maybe about sixteen, I felt like he did it," Cobb, now 32, explained, noting the impressive and enduring impact incarceration has not just on those behind bars, but family, friends and the community as well. "That put emotional distress on me and had a huge effect on our relationship, I didn't speak to my father for about five or six years straight while he was in jail."
The mom of six said re-adjusting to life with her dad is special but also difficult.
"It's like I have a newborn baby all over again. He's a baby. He's been locked up for 25 years, all he knows is when someone tells him to eat when someone tells him to do this, do that, it's hurtful the way things turned out, but it's going to get better," she said. "I was angry before, and now I am not. I just can't imagine who else is in jail who is going through this. What about the other people who are going through this that were wrongly convicted and snatched away, stolen from their lives."
Following the release of Ricks, Detroit Police Chief James Craig said the department would conduct an internal investigation into the 1992 case and how it was handled. The Detroit Free Press reached out to the department for an update on the review but has not heard back yet.
Under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, a bi-partisan bill that was passed in December, exonerees are eligible to be paid $50,000 for each year they were wrongly incarcerated, as well as the attorney fees they incurred during the litigation process. As Ricks was incarcerated for 25 years, he should be eligible receive $1.25 million from the state.
Still, a civil lawsuit against the officers who helped put Ricks behind bars felt necessary for the man who spent 25-years of his life — the "sweet spot" of his life as attorney Mueller put it — in a cage.
"I lost, I can never get the loss back, I just have to make sure I do everything in my power as a man, as a father and grandfather, and a brother, uncle, great uncle, great-great uncle," said Ricks. "I just need to make sure I can be the best person I can be every day for them. To teach them that bad things happen to good people sometimes, but you just have to keep moving. You can't let this define us or stop us from living."
According to a 2016 analysis by the Associated Press, Michigan has released more wrongly incarcerated prisoners than all but four states.
"There are so many people in prison now who don't belong there because of the conduct of the crime lab and the Detroit Police Department," said Mueller, noting that the statutes of limitation mean criminal charges can't be pressed against the two retired officers. "I think in 2017 under Chief Craig the Detroit Police Department is much better and things have improved leaps and bounds, but there are still people serving 25, 35, 45 year sentences, who may never get out, based off Detroit police misconduct."
Contact Allie Gross: email@example.com
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