Police Abuse

Man Free After Serving 25 Years for Murder Linked to Switched Bullets

The Detroit Crime Lab, shut down in 2008 for negligence, switched test bullets with autopsy bullets in order to convict Desmond Ricks.


Detroit Police car
Uli Deck/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

After 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, charges against Desmond Ricks have been dropped. The Michigan Innocence Clinic showed that his 1992 conviction was based on fraudulent evidence contrived by Detroit law enforcement reported, The Detroit News.

Ricks was convicted of second degree murder for the death of his friend Gerry Bennett, who was shot outside of a Detroit burger joint. Prosecutors and police claimed that Ricks killed Bennett in cold blood using a gun that belonged to his mother, Mary Ricks. The Detroit Police Crime Lab, which was closed in 2008 due to an audit that found errors in ballistics testing, claimed to match the bullets from Bennett's body to those in Mary Ricks' gun. His case was referred to the Michigan Innocence Clinic in late 2011.

David Moran, director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, spoke with Reason. He believes evidence shows that the Detroit Police Crime Lab acted fraudulently:

"On the same day that the police seized the gun from Mary Ricks, Desmond Ricks' mother, the Detroit Police Crime lab issued a one page report saying that the bullets pulled from Gerry Bennett's body matched that gun and no other gun in the world. And that's simply not possible because we now know what those bullets looked like. They were analyzed by the Michigan State Police and we have photographs of them. They are horribly mangled as you would expect from soft lead .38-caliber bullets that go from a skull all the way to the spine. There are just not enough marks left on the bullets to match them to any gun. So there is no way that those bullets could have been definitively matched to any gun…It's very hard to see how that could have happened otherwise outright fraud."

In the original trial, the judge appointed ballistics expert David Townshend to conduct independent analysis of the bullets. Townshend initially verified the Detroit Crime Lab's findings.

From prison, Ricks contacted Townshend and asked him to visit him here, even offering the retired Michigan State Police Officer gas money. As explained by Moran, Townshend would conduct his analysis by firing bullets from Mary Ricks' gun into a water tank and comparing those to the autopsy bullets given to him by Detroit police. Townshend was always suspicious of the bullets he received "because they didn't seem like they were mangled enough for having gone through a skull and in the spine. Nor did they have the stains that you would expect to see on bullets that had been pulled out of a dead body" Moran said.

After the 2008 crime lab scandal and visiting Ricks in prison, Townshend came to the conclusion that the autopsy bullets were switched with the Detroit Crime Lab's own test bullets. He signed an affidavit in 2015 stating that the bullets he received were not from Bennett's body.

Unfortunately, Ricks' case may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to Moran, the Detroit police violated the Constitution frequently in the 1990s by inventing false confessions or arresting and holding witnesses until they implicated a defendant. While the Wayne County Prosecutors Office received a grant to look into other cases that the Detroit Crime Lab may have mishandled, they only searched back to 2003. Moran intends to ask the Michigan Attorney General to launch a full independent investigation into convictions based on crime lab analysis.

For now, Ricks told The Detroit News that he is ready to move forward: "There's no excuse for what they did, but I have to move on. I just didn't want to die in prison. Now, I'm just trying to get some semblance of my life back. I just want to pay my taxes and be a good citizen."

He is also entitled to $1.25 million from the state.