CINCINNATI — A man who spent 28 years in prison for murder before DNA evidence exonerated him will not get a chance to confront the Newport police detectives who he had accused of framing him.
William “Ricky” Virgil sued the city of Newport and police in 2016 for wrongful conviction. His civil trial had been set to begin last August in federal court in Covington.
But U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning agreed to delay the case so the officers could appeal. They say qualified immunity shields them from liability and a jury trial.
Virgil’s attorney, Elliot Slosar, called the appeal frivolous and a stalling tactic. He warned that his client, who was 69, might not survive a year-long delay.
Virgil died on Jan. 2 – nearly six years after he filed his lawsuit, which is still pending.
“All William ever wanted was a fair day in court. He never got that,” Slosar said. “The fact that William Virgil couldn’t live to see justice is a reminder of how grave their misconduct is and how much they should pay for it.”
Jeff Mando, who represents former Newport police officers Marc Brandt and Norm Wagner, said the appeal is not a delay tactic but a fundamental right to seek a correct ruling from a higher court.
“Mr. Virgil’s unfortunate death does not impact my clients’ fervent belief that they have been falsely accused of depriving Mr. Virgil of a fair trial for the murder of Retha Welch,” Mando said. “As dedicated law enforcement officers in the community with excellent service records, they are confident that the facts and evidence will vindicate them, and that justice will prevail.”
The appeal is now before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and depending on the outcome, a trial could take place sometime in 2023.
Slosar works for a Chicago law firm, Loevy & Loevy, which has won multi-million dollar verdicts in wrongful conviction cases across the nation.
Slosar promised to keep an empty chair in the courtroom at trial in honor of Virgil.
“There’s such interesting racial undertones with how William Virgil got wrongfully convicted. You have a white victim who suffered a tragic death and the police buried the evidence against white alternate suspects to frame a black man for a crime he did not commit,” Slosar said.
On April 13, 1987, a coworker discovered the body of Retha Welch, a 54-year-old psychiatric nurse who worked in jail ministry, in the bathroom of her Newport home. She had been raped, stabbed 28 times and severely hit on the head.
Welch had met Virgil while ministering inmates. He had been released from prison a few months before her death and said the two had a sexual relationship.
Less than two weeks later, Newport police arrested Virgil for Welch’s murder. In 1988, after a trial based entirely on circumstantial evidence, the jury convicted him.
Virgil had always maintained his innocence. Attorneys for the Kentucky Innocence Project took an interest in Virgil’s case and won a motion for DNA testing in 2010.
“DNA testing from the victim’s vaginal swab excluded Virgil as a contributor and … hairs recovered at the crime scene were found not to contain Virgil’s DNA,” according to a recent order on a motion for summary judgment, allowing the case against two former Newport officers to proceed to trial.
Based on this new evidence, a Campbell County Circuit Court judge granted Virgil a new trial in December 2015.
Then in August 2016 a key prosecution witness, Joe Womack, recanted his testimony that Virgil had confessed to him about murdering Welch while the two were inmates together. In an affidavit, he wrote that then-Newport police detective Norman Wagner had supplied him with details of the murder.
“Womack further alleged that Wagner had coerced him into testifying by threatening to charge him with accomplice liability," according to a June 2021 order by Bunning. "According to Womack, Wagner paid him in cash in advance of his testimony and prosecutor Hoot Ebert promised to write a letter in his favor to the parole board.”
After Womack repeated these allegations to a grand jury in December 2016, the grand jury declined to re-indict Virgil, and weeks later prosecutors dismissed all charges.
“One of the officers admitted in his deposition that he paid the jailhouse informant cash. That was never known for the 28 years that William spent wrongfully incarcerated,” Slosar said.
When Virgil first filed his lawsuit in 2016, he sued the cities of Norwood, Cincinnati and Newport, as well as officers from all three departments for their roles in a joint investigation into a possible serial killer. He alleged they withheld and fabricated evidence, and that the city of Newport failed to train its officers.
As the case moved through the court system, Bunning dismissed claims against the cities of Norwood and Cincinnati, and all law enforcement except for former Newport officers Wagner and Marc Brandt, “who the record shows may have withheld exculpatory evidence relating to alternate suspects and pretrial payments to a witness.”
Slosar began working with the Kentucky Innocence Project on Virgil’s case seven years ago and said he considered him a friend, and not just a client.
“He loved life. He was super funny and loved joking around. But he also loved his family so much,” Slosar said. “He had a lot of catching up to do and he tried to do it as quickly as he could.”
Although Virgil was upset about the decades he spent in prison, Slosar said it also brought him closer to his faith.
“While justice certainly has been delayed for William … it won’t be denied,” Slosar said. “William’s fight will continue. A jury will hear this case. And William, while not there physically, he will be there in spirit when we get him justice.”
Virgil’s cousin, Jeri Colemon, will take his place in the courtroom as his personal representative and will testify about their relationship, Slosar said.
Colemon is grateful that her cousin was able to enjoy a few years of travel, family time and freedom. But she said the lawsuit always hung over him.
“We didn’t get to enjoy him as a totally free person,” Colemon said. “Am I grateful that he didn’t die in jail, yes. But was he totally free? No.”
Virgil’s family sang his favorite old gospel songs at his memorial service on January 17 at Greater Liberty Baptist Church.
His cousin, Judith Kinebrew, said in her eulogy, “I want to remind us that we’re grateful for those six years. We’re lucky that he got to come to family reunions … and connect with old friends and got to know people that he did not know the before. He got to travel. What a blessing.”
Slosar also gave a eulogy in which he played recordings of Virgil and talked about his case.
“As with so many others, the criminal justice system failed William. It failed your family. And today it’s hard not to feel like the system failed William again by allowing his lawsuit to go on long enough that he couldn’t see the end, here with us.”