Qualified Immunity

He Spent 28 Years Behind Bars for a Murder He Didn't Commit and Died Before Seeing Justice

The police officers who allegedly framed William Virgil were denied qualified immunity. But they're still trying to delay a trial.

|

William Virgil spent almost three decades behind bars for a murder he didn't commit. That guilty verdict came down after police in Kentucky withheld evidence that may have exonerated him during trial.

Yet Virgil won't see any justice for that police misconduct, as he is now dead—the government roadblocks to his lawsuit so long and winding that they outlived him.

Such is the case with qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that allows local and state actors to violate your rights without fear of having to pay for it in civil court if the government misbehavior in question has not been "clearly established" in a prior court ruling.

But the cops at the center of Virgil's story did violate "clearly established" law.

In April of 1987, Retha Welch was found dead in her Newport, Kentucky, home after she was stabbed repeatedly, hit on the head, and raped. Virgil was almost immediately pinpointed as a suspect, having developed a sexual relationship with Welch after Welch's work in a jail ministry brought the two in contact. Based on circumstantial evidence, he was convicted the following year and was not released until December of 2015 after DNA testing excluded him as the killer.

Whether or not Virgil would have spent time in prison were it not for government malfeasance is impossible to say. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in 2018 that it should have been plainly obvious to any reasonable police officer—even in 1988—that withholding evidence from a defendant is unconstitutional. Specifically, former Newport Police Department officer Norman Wagner declined to disclose that he paid a jailhouse informant named Joe Womack to testify against Virgil after Wagner allegedly fed Womack details about the crime and promised to put in a good word with the parole board if Womack obliged. What's more, Wagner, along with former officer Marc Brandt, failed to tell the defense about a serial killer investigation possibly connected to Welch's murder, and that other suspects had been identified as a part of that effort.

"[Virgil] alleges, for example, that the officers tried to frame him; that they coerced an inmate to testify falsely that Virgil had confessed to the murder; and that they then deliberately suppressed exculpatory evidence regarding alternative suspects," wrote Judge Joan Larsen for the 6th Circuit in December of 2018. "Such conduct, if proved, would surely amount to bad faith or its functional equivalent; and there can be little question that it was well established before September 1988 that police officers could not deliberately conceal material, exculpatory evidence."

Virgil died in January of this year—almost three years after that decision came down, and even longer after a lower court came to the same conclusion. But his case was still prohibited from going before a jury, as the government insisted on appealing again to the same court which already ruled in Virgil's favor.

"A reasonably trained police officer in 1988 would have certainly known that you have to disclose exculpatory evidence implicating other people in a homicide investigation," says Elliot Slosar, an attorney at Loevy & Loevy, who is representing Virgil. "That type of law was clearly established not only by 1988, but by 1968. Because of that, we do view their appeal as frivolous."

The suit was first filed in early 2016. Virgil's estate is not expected to go to trial until 2023, with the government invoking its special protections to continue delaying a claim that multiple courts have already said should proceed to a jury trial. "Qualified immunity…enable[s] defendants who have been plausibly accused of misconduct to stretch out the litigation, to make it longer and more expensive than it would be," says Clark Neily, senior vice president for legal studies at the Cato Institute. "Unfortunately, some plaintiffs do end up dying during litigation….It's a real tragedy." Meanwhile, Virgil overcoming qualified immunity did not entitle him to any sort of judgement—it merely afforded him the privilege to impanel his peers and state his case, something his cousin will now do in his stead.

"William just always wanted justice, which means a lot of different things," says Slosar. "He wanted his day in court. He wanted for the public to see how he was framed for a crime he did not commit. He wanted for the public to see evidence of who really committed this tragic murder. More than anything, William always wanted these police officers to be held accountable for every single day that he was ripped away from his family and spent wrongfully incarcerated."

That's perhaps a modest list for someone who spent 28 years behind bars paying for a murder he didn't take part in. And yet asking the government to pay for its part in ruining Virgil's life is apparently too big an ask.

NEXT: New Jersey Town Sues Elderly Woman for Filing Too Many Public Records Requests

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Kim Kardashian really dropped the ball on this one.

    1. I am making easily every month $ 22000 to $ 28000 just by doing simple work from home. This job is online and very easy to do part-time or Full-time even no special experience required for this task. (qwe04) Anyone can now participate in this job and start earning just like me by just following link…..

      >>>>>>>>>> http://CurrentJobs64.Cf

  2. As someone with a sense of shame and a fully functioning conscience, I simply cannot comprehend how police do what they do.

    1. Power destroys a conscience.

    2. Confirmation bias & cognitive dissonance. A cop gets it in their head a person is guilty. The cop then does whatever they can to convict the person. Suppress/ignore evidence which doesn't fit their guilty view. Manufacture evidence because the person is guilty and the ends justify the means.

      1. And the district attorney plays along.

        1. I have been prosecuted on multiple occasions for laughable 'violations'. It's the prosecutors yes, but also the Judges at times, too. I was recently essentially 'prosecuted' by a judge who didn't even want to see the state's evidence! Weeds. No, not those kinds. 'Knot' weeds. I didn't know if they were going for Abbot and Costello or Lewis Carol. The judge is ma as hell "You understand you need to take care of your property! I've had you in here before for that their mural" (I made a little park with a very tame Americana-themed mural based on Emma Lazarus's The New Colossus) Then when I demanded evidence, the judge saw a poorly taken picture of a dying tree which was taken minutes earlier -- in a snowstorm... "Come back when them weeds grow back in the Spring!" It's a farce and it's not just the big trials it's all the way up and down the line.

      2. This is exactly how it happens.

        I had an interaction with one of the prosecutors from the Little Rascals Preschool moral panic. A couple of preschool workers and the owner were accused of facially ludicrous molestation. There is a whole Frontline series about it.

        The prosecutor who was defending the appeals was firmly convinced in their guilt. She was fighting tooth and nail to maintain or reinstate life sentences for the owner and a 19 year old worker who they claimed were naked and having sex in a storefront window on main street at noon, all based on testimony elicited by a "therapist" who cajoled the kids into saying what she wanted them to say.

        It is laughable. You don't have to know any particulars of the case to know that this did not happen. Nor did anyone rape a 3 year old with a butcher knife, leaving no physical evidence of trauma.

        Yet she really believed it. Probably because not believing it was too much to deal with.

        1. Did she BELEIVE it or was it a career move?

        2. No. They are sociopaths that do this or under the spell or command of one. What they present to the DA will be reviewed by the DA and judge who decide to try a suspect or not. A judge does very little and why should they? The DA wants a win which they can get using plea bargains since SCOTUS ousted that requirement of the Constitution that all criminal trials be jury trials. A DA will further or wishes to further a career on to state AG then state Senate, (Kamala Harris). The do not serve justice but themselves and nobody seems to notice or care.
          If arrested innocence is not a reason to not worry. Once arrested you are in a system that is hard to get out of. First you must prove your innocence not vice versa. Once in prison you no longer are human. Hell is probably already full...of lawyers and police.

      3. And even if they aren't guilty of this, they are a bad person and certainly guilty of *something* so they deserve to be in jail either way

    3. Well, if you have a department full of thick, lazy, aggressively violent racists, and you let them run the recruiting, then everyone they recruit is like them. All the decent people are chased off or just don't get the job.

      Let's make no mistake here, this wasn't an accident, and the cops involved don't see it as a mark of shame. They're really hardcore KKK-style racists, and are proud to have framed a black man.

    4. Agreed, not only the police, but the current group of criminals delaying the trial. Trial??? Sheesh, they should admit the truth and settle. If not, send the officers and gov’t lawyers to the Ukraine—-/in russian uniforms.

    5. They are sociopath. Dr Robert Hare 15 signs of behaviors that can be observed in sociopath people are:

      Loquacity / Superficial charm.
      Egocentrism / Great feeling of self-worth.
      Need for stimulation / Tendency to boredom.
      Pathological lying.
      Cunning / Manipulative.
      Lack of remorse and guilt.
      Emotionally shallow.
      Callous / Lack of empathy.
      Parasitic lifestyle.
      Lack of behavioral control.
      Promiscuous sexual behavior.
      Early behavioral problems.
      Lack of realistic long-term goals.
      Impulsiveness.
      Irresponsibility.
      Inability to accept responsibility for own actions.
      Several brief marital relations.
      Juvenile delinquency.
      Revocation of conditional release.
      Criminal versatility.
      We have all known one or more and you may know one now. Understanding it can save you grief or help to stop your child from marrying one. Sociopaths are not all serial killers but all serial killers are. Lying is a easy sign to see, sociopath will lie when telling the truth would benefit them. Also they do not care about anyone and have no true emotions. If diagnosed as sociopath they will not care.. They think they can even fool experts and sometimes do.
      Police and sheriff departments always will hire sociopath applicants if the pass certain tests only to find they hired one later. These same departments are the ones who claim background checks work for CCW permits!

      Loquacity / Superficial charm.
      Egocentrism / Great feeling of self-worth.
      Need for stimulation / Tendency to boredom.
      Pathological lying.
      Cunning / Manipulative.
      Lack of remorse and guilt.
      Emotionally shallow.
      Callous / Lack of empathy.
      Parasitic lifestyle.
      Lack of behavioral control. Gambling addiction (using others money)
      Promiscuous sexual behavior.
      Early behavioral problems.
      Lack of realistic long-term goals.
      Impulsiveness.
      Irresponsibility.
      Inability to accept responsibility for own actions.
      Several brief marital relations.
      Juvenile delinquency.
      Revocation of conditional release.
      Criminal versatility.

      Sociopaths that sentenced to prison should all receive life, they are useless to the rest of us and the source for numerous problems. I believe everyone has been a victim or felt the effects of a sociopath. If you know one parts ways and do not look back.

  3. I wonder why Virgil's family have not taken care of these cops yet.

    1. Perhaps they are law abiding and/or cannot afford or find an attorney or both. Killing does not bring back the dead.
      The effective of means mobsters used was to target children and family members of the bad actors. But since they (the police) seem to be sociopaths these police will not care about those deaths either.

  4. The cops need to be prosecuted, not sued civilly. There is no QI for a criminal case. Where is the DOJ?

    1. The DOJ is busy not investigating the Biden cartel, and also holding peaceful protesters in jail without trial. They need more funding, so Basement Bunker Biden is going to get it for them. That way, they can ignore even more cases like this one.

    2. Have you not heard anything about the DOJ? Read "Licensed To Lie", it will churn your stomach and leave you angry.

    3. Civil trials where a person died to Rights being violated is life with no parole I believe unless SCOTUS has f*cked with that as well. I for one am in favor of disbandment of SCOTUS, and the FBI, ATF, and the DOJ. It is good start

  5. It takes a special kind of idiot to have faith in the proper channels. He was old, he had nothing else to live for. He could have done something truly useful, but no. The cuckold begged his psychotic child-molesting overlords to treat him as more than chattel, and look what he got for it. This should be a lesson to us all.

    1. They don't have to be an idiot to have faith in the proper channels. If they never had any interaction with the proper channels why would they lack faith?

  6. The "justice" system is as corrupt as anything on this planet.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.