Today in Shelby County, jury selection begins for the new trial of Tennessee death row inmate Michael Rimmer. He will be re-tried for the murder of Ricci Ellsworth, who disappeared from her workplace, the Memphis Inn, in 1997.
In 1989, Rimmer was sentenced to seven years in prison for the rape of Ricci Ellsworth, after the two had dated years before. A few months after Rimmer’s release, Ellsworth went missing. Upon investigation, traces of Ellsworth’s blood were found in Rimmer’s car, and he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. In 2004, he was granted a new sentencing hearing and received a second death sentence.
In the following years, evidence of misconduct by Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Henderson began to surface. USA Today wrote an in depth piece on Rimmer’s case in 2011, reporting that Henderson withheld critical evidence from the defense of a very credible witness who saw two different men at the bloody crime scene on the night of Ellsworth’s disappearance —not Michael Rimmer.
The witness told police that he saw two white men with blood on their hands in the motel around the time Ellsworth went missing. The witness assumed that one of the men was the motel clerk because he was behind the office window and was handing what he thought was change to the other man. Both men had bloody knuckles so he thought they had been fighting. Then, in the parking lot, one of the men put something wrapped in a hotel comforter in the trunk of his car, something heavy enough to make the car drop from the weight of it. Jurors in Rimmer’s 1998 trial never knew an eyewitness claimed to have seen other suspects at the Memphis motel that evening.
In 2012, Judge James Beasley overturned Rimmer’s conviction and sentence, granting him a new trial. The Judge wrote in his order that “Henderson’s assertions in the 1998 and 2004 cases that ‘he knew of no evidence exonerating or exculpating (Rimmer)’ were blatantly false, inappropriate, and ethically questionable.”
The District Attorney’s office in Shelby County has a history of such tactics. When those sworn to uphold the law play fast and loose with it, how are we supposed to trust the results? And when the death penalty is on the table, the stakes are simply too high to cross our fingers and hope that folks are playing by the rules.
And regardless of the outcome of Rimmer’s second trial, Ricci Ellsworth’s family has been victimized again by a system in which those sworn to uphold the law seemed more interested in winning than in fairness and due process. When the rules aren’t followed, victims’ families suffer as they are dragged through their worst nightmare all over again. This is unacceptable.
Though ending the death penalty won’t fix all these problems, it will ensure that our system, as flawed as it is, does not have the power to decide who lives and dies and will allow for victims’ families to receive a measure of legal finality that the current death penalty system can’t give them.
Learn more about Rimmer’s trial.
Learn more about prosecutorial misconduct and the death penalty.
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