Right now, in prisons all over America, there are convicted murderers who swear they are innocent. Sadly, we know some of them are telling the truth. Nobody knows that better than Michigan man Desmond Ricks.
Imagine receiving your sentence and spending 25 years in prison for a crime you did not commit. Desmond Ricks doesn't have to imagine that nightmare. He lived it.
It was a blustery afternoon in March 1992 in Detroit. Desmond Ricks had just become the proud father of a baby girl and was spending the afternoon with his best pal Gerry Bennett.
"I just had my daughter, and she was three days old at that time," Desmond Ricks tells Crime Watch Daily. "So me and Gerry, we talked back and forth and he was gonna make a few runs, he said, maybe go to the store or something like that."
Desmond and Gerry swung by a local burger joint. They didn't know it, but murder was on the menu.
"I'm not gonna sit here and lie to you," said Desmond. "Once I got there and I see the surroundings, what's going on, I know what's going on, I'm like 'Wait a minute, man, I got somewhere to go.'"
Desmond claims he only then realized that Gerry Bennett was actually meeting another guy to make a drug deal.
"Next thing I know, he gets out of the car, the other guy gets out of the car, they go into the restaurant, they come out of the restaurant. That's when all the shooting and stuff starts," said Desmond. "I'm in the passenger seat of the car, I don't know what's going on. On the side of the rearview mirror I can look at the back and I can see him shoot him the first time.
"He shot him in the head," said Desmond.
Then a second bullet ripped through Gerry Bennett's abdomen. He was dead on the sidewalk. Desmond says he freaked out and jumped out of the car to run, and then the gunman took aim at him.
"The guy shoots at me a couple of times, I'm running, I can't help him at this point," said Desmond. "So when he shoot him and he raise up like this, and the gun is looking me right in my face, what am I supposed to think?"
But as Desmond ran for his life:
"My coat got caught in the bushes. It has all my hospital pass in there from when I visited the hospital, with my name on there, my driver's license, all my I.D. is in there," said Desmond.
Detroit Police said that undeniably placed Desmond Ricks at the crime scene.
"The police come a couple days later," said Desmond. "There's two federal agents and a Detroit police officer. They come in the house, they ask my mother if she have any firearms in the house. Now, she got a gun, it's been registered since the '70s, and this is a registered firearm with the city of Detroit, so it's on record. They go in the back, get the firearm and come out. One of the police say 'This is not the gun.' The other guy say 'We'll just take it anyway.'"
Cops seized mom's Rossi .38 Special. They took Desmond to Detroit's 12th Precinct for questioning.
"They told me 'We know you didn't do it, but we think you know who did,' and I told them, 'I don't know those people, don't know, never seen them before in my life.' 'You're a liar, you're a liar, you're a liar.' I stuck to the truth," said Desmond. "Can you imagine that? A person looking you in your face like I'm looking at you and telling you 'I know you're innocent, but if you don't tell me who did it, you're going to jail.' If I don't cooperate with them and tell them who that man was that did that crime, I was going to prison."
But you didn't know who did it?
"No ma'am. To this day I don't know. I don't know those people. Don't know them. Never knew them," said Desmond.
So how does Desmond suddenly go from witness to suspect?
"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Desmond Ricks's defense attorney Caitlin Plummer.
Plummer says the key evidence that allegedly tied Desmond to the killing was his mother's gun. Detroit cops built a case, saying he used it to kill his best friend.
"The ballistic experts came in in this case and said '100 percent this is the gun, it could not be another gun,'" Plummer tells Crime Watch Daily.
Pictures show the slugs the medical examiner removed from the dead man's body.
"They were sent to the Detroit crime lab," said Plummer. "At that point the crime lab had the two bullets from Mr. Bennett's body and they had Desmond's mother's gun, and so they compared the two, or said that they compared the two, to determine whether those bullets that came from the body were fired from Desmond's mother's gun, and that this was a match, that these bullets were fired from this gun, and that they could have only been fired from that gun, and of course if that were true, that's very incriminating evidence because there was never any dispute that Desmond was at the scene."
Desmond Ricks was charged with murder and put on trial. There was no apparent motive, and the main piece of evidence was that ballistics report. The jury bought the ballistics argument. They found Desmond guilty of second-degree murder and the illegal use of a firearm. He was sentenced to 32 to 62 years in state prison.
What was that moment like for you?
"A reality check," said Desmond. "You're going to prison for 30 years for something you didn't do, and you've got to figure out how you're going to deal with it. No need to be crying. I know a real man is going to do what he has to do. People say 'Light at the end of the tunnel.' There was no tunnel. It's all dark. There was no tunnel. There was no nothing."
The murder investigation was carried out at the Detroit Police Department's 12th Precinct, but the investigation took a turn for the worse, and some say it wasn't because of negligence or incompetence, but pure evil.
From the moment he walked into prison as a convicted killer, Desmond Ricks told everyone he was innocent of the murder of his best friend Gerry Bennett.
So all your boys around you in prison, all your clique knew you were innocent?
"Everybody knew, everybody knew -- the officers, the police, the warden, everybody knew I was innocent," Desmond tells Crime Watch Daily. "The warden knew I was innocent."
Was there something fishy about the ballistics evidence that sent Desmond Ricks to prison?
"The bullets that were removed from the body were .38s, and the gun that was allegedly used by Mr. Ricks was a .38," said Desmond Ricks's defense attorney Caitlin Plummer. "And what we know about this gun is that it produces certain markings, that it has certain lands and grooves that could not possibly have matched the bullets that actually were removed from the body. There's no way that this gun could have shot those bullets based on the markings that we know exist."
But that's not what the cops said. The police evidence technician testified in court that the bullets that killed Gerry Bennett were indeed fired from Desmond's mother's gun.
What was going on in your mind when you heard that those bullets came from your mother's gun and killed your friend?
"That the police kept their word. They were gonna send me to prison," said Desmond.
David Townshend was then a firearms examiner with the Michigan State Police. He helped send Desmond Ricks to prison. He was the court-appointed ballistics expert at Desmond's murder trial.
The first time you saw those bullets, what did you think?
"Well, the first time I saw them was when the detective brought them to my facilities for me to conduct a microscopic examination of the evidence bullets and test bullets," David Townshend tells Crime Watch Daily. "I had fired the gun and obtained test shots from the gun.
"And I opened up evidence envelopes that contained the bullets and I looked at them, and first I thought 'Well, did the evidence bullets and the test bullets get placed in the wrong envelopes?' And I asked them, I said 'Are these the evidence bullets?' 'Oh yes, those are evidence bullets, I hope.'
"Something just didn't seem right," said Townshend. "The evidence bullets were in very, very good condition. They were pristine bullets. Depending on where it's removed from a body, the bullet can have a severe amount of mutilation damage, trace evidence, blood, hair, bone tissue on the nose of the bullet."
In layman's terms, the ballistics were bogus. David Townshend believes someone swapped the slugs from Bennett's body with the test bullets fired from Desmond's mother's gun.
"The physical evidence didn't match what he was charged with," said Townshend.
Townshend shows us how the alleged switch could have happened.
"The Detroit P.D. crime lab evidence envelopes, they weren't sealed, they had string, so you'd have a button on the top and a button on the bottom, and then you could open it and you could close it numerous times," said Townshend.
Townshend claims when he said he wouldn't testify that the bullets in the evidence envelope were the ones that killed Bennett, the prosecutor said show up -- or else.
"You either come or we're going to send the car and bring you down here and then put you in jail for contempt of court," said Townshend. "I testified on it and said 'These bullets are the ones I examined, these bullets were identified,' I identified as having been fired from this gun, and that was basically it."
You were strong-armed into being there to testify, it sounds like.
"Kind of, yes," said Townshend.
Bullet-switching? Forced testimony? What's going on? Desmond Ricks says it's painfully obvious that he was framed.
So you knew they changed bullets?
"Yes ma'am," said Desmond. "I knew that gun didn't commit that crime. This gun that that prosecutor said was a murder weapon is not."
But despite all of this coming out long after the conviction for second-degree murder and his appeals all exhausted, there was about to be some stunning news that would give Desmond a big break. The state shut down the Detroit Police crime lab because of serious errors in many cases unrelated to Desmond's.
"This was a case that turned on one piece of evidence, and it turned on one piece of evidence that we knew we should be suspicious of. We knew we should be suspicious of it because it came from a crime lab that was shut down," said Caitlin Plummer.
"I was actually working on another case of somebody who was in the same prison, and this person said 'You really ought to meet Desmond Ricks, because he has a very strong innocence case,'" said Whitman. "I felt it could be proven, but from day one I didn't know if they had preserved the bullets, and that was the key thing."
Whitman investigated Desmond's claims. But would she gain access to the bullets that might have been destroyed after decades in storage?
"I thought, 'Well, if those bullets are gone, how are we ever gonna win this case?'" said Whitman.
"You can't come away with any conclusion other than that there was fraud going on, that they were just declaring matches between guns and bullets that didn't really match," said Moran. "They knew they were going to get caught. They knew that David Townshend would say 'You can't match these bullets to any gun,' and so what did they do? They switched the bullets. They gave David Townshend the test-fired bullets."
But how would Desmond and his legal team prove it? In a strange twist of fate, Desmond was working on his case in the prison law library and just happened to run across an ad in the back of a legal journal.
"I just happened to go in the back and looked at the forensic page, and there his name was: David Townshend," said Desmond. "And I'm saying to myself, 'Wait a minute, is this the same guy?' Because he was an older gentleman back then."
Desmond wondered, Could the man who helped put him away now help get him out?
For more than 25 years Desmond Ricks sat in prison knowing he was innocent, but not getting anyone to listen -- until he reached out to one of the key people who put him there in the first place.
"It didn't matter how long I was in there, 'I'm not gonna let you take from me the only thing I got left.' The only thing I had left was my innocence," said Desmond.
So he tracked down the guy whose testimony put him away, ballistics expert David Townshend, and asked for his help.
"It might have been 20 years later. I answered the phone and it took me by surprise," said Townshend. "It was a case of going back and trying to do what I could do to make things right by him."
Townshend said he always believed the bullets introduced as evidence were actually the test bullets, not the slugs removed from the body of Desmond's friend Gerry Bennett. The first thing Townshend did was to view pictures of the evidence from a quarter-century earlier.
"His attorney sent me photographs of the two evidence bullets, and I looked at them and I said, 'Those aren't the bullets I examined,'" said Townshend.
You instantly knew?
"Oh, absolutely," said Townshend.
With that information, Desmond's attorney from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic went to the judge to argue the evidence was falsified. But his attorney, Caitlin Plummer, says getting an exoneration, even with solid proof, is no slam-dunk.
"I think there's resistance in any old case to reopening it after the fact," said Plummer. "The ballistics was the case, and so we knew if we could disprove that then we could prove he didn't do it."
Part of that proof came from the conclusions of independent firearms examiner David Balash, formerly with the Michigan State Police.
The bullets that were used as evidence were too pristine to have gone in contact with bone in someone's body?
"Absolutely, without question," said David Balash.
There's no way they could have been the bullets?
"Zero chance," said Balash.
All that was enough to convince the judge. And in a dramatic moment, Desmond Ricks walked out of court a free man.
"It felt like it was finally over. When I did get a chance to go out in the hallway, I exhaled, I took that last exhale, let all that bad air out," said Desmond.
What was the hardest part of losing 25 years of your life?
"My mother died. I lost nephews, my uncle, my grandmother, just all my family members that were alive when I went in there. I'm the oldest living male figure on my mother's side of the family, at 51 years old," said Desmond Ricks.
Desmond says that's why he moved his daughters and grandchildren in with him.
"I love the time I spend with them. Every morning before school, they come in my room, 'Grandpa,' you know with the snack bag, with the candy on the floor, and we just watch cartoons until it's time to get dressed and go to school," said Desmond.
He's definitely making up for lost time. But what about 25 years of lost income and retirement savings? According to Michigan law, Desmond Ricks is entitled to $50,000 a year for every year he was falsely imprisoned -- that's a whopping $1.25 million, tax-free.
"I don't think any amount of money can ever compensate somebody for however many years they spent in prison, you know, and $50,000 is probably not enough," said Caitlin Plummer. "It should probably be a million dollars for every year."
What is the monetary compensation you're asking for in this case?
"It'll be $125 million, and I expect that a jury, when they hear all the evidence, will render a verdict for every penny of that," Wolfgang Mueller tells Crime Watch Daily.
Was this egregious misconduct?
"This was, I think, purely evil, in that they started with an intentional fabrication of evidence, and then they just started lying. This is not a mistake," said Mueller.
Crime Watch Daily obtained the video deposition of David Pauch, the now-retired Detroit Police evidence technician named in the lawsuit.
"At this time, there was no way to tell, but the gun had been fired recently."
"That means your conclusion, as we look on your report, that this is a positive I.D., that the gun, the bullets came from that gun, one, is incorrect? Are you with me?"
"I'm with you, but --"
"OK, so now the question is, Since you are competent, I've got to ask you: Did you come to that conclusion because you're incompetent, or because you did it on purpose?"
"Neither one, sir."
Pauch said he didn't recall the murder investigation, and he denies any wrongdoing in his analysis of the ballistics. We reached out to the Detroit Police Dept. for reaction to the lawsuit, but they told us: "At this time the Detroit Police Department has no comment."
"They switched the bullets. David Townshend was right," said David Moran of the Michigan Innocence Clinic.
This is criminal?
"It is," said Moran. "They test-fired Mary Ricks's, the mom's gun apparently into a water tank, pulled those bullets out and passed them off as the ones that came from Gerry Bennett's body. We referred it to the Michigan Attorney General's Office, and we were told that there's virtually no chance anything will happen because the statute of limitations has almost certainly run for fraud."
He paid time for their crime?
"That's right," said Moran.
For now, Desmond Ricks is focusing on his family, relishing the sweet taste of freedom.
How long does it take to get out of prison mode into freedom mode?
"I'm still wrestling with it now. Every day," said Desmond Ricks. "But I'm loving it. I'm loving it. I'm happy, I'm grateful and I'm humbled."
If Desmond Ricks is successful in his $125 million federal lawsuit against the city of Detroit and its police department, then he will be forced to give back the million-dollar payout he already received from the state.