On Saturday, a Memphis jury found Michael Rimmer guilty again and sentenced him to death for the third time. He was originally sentenced to death in 1998 for the murder of Ricci Ellsworth, who disappeared from her job as a night clerk in a Memphis hotel in 1997. He was resentenced to death in 2004.
USA Today wrote an in depth piece on Rimmer’s case in 2011, reporting that Shelby County Assistant District Attorney Thomas 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.
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.”
Still, even with the evidence of these alternative suspects at the crime scene, the jury determined that the evidence against Rimmer was enough to find him guilty again. Because Rimmer did not provide any mitigating evidence during sentencing, the jury sentenced him to death again as well.
On May 6, the Commercial Appeal reported that Ricci Ellsworth’s family members, though “completely for the death penalty,” were hoping that with this retrial the case “would be over for good.” The family conceded that life without parole would suffice as they wanted to avoid the opportunity for further appeals.
Sadly, the family did not get what they wanted. Instead, Michael Rimmer will now begin the appeals process all over again because he received another death sentence. If the death penalty had not been an option, the Ellsworth family might have been able to get some legal finality after nearly 20 years of waiting, but with the death sentence handed down again, they won’t.
This case demonstrates just how dysfunctional the death penalty system has become. Because the prosecution withheld critical evidence for years–evidence which obviously wasn’t enough to keep a jury from finding Rimmer guilty–a new trial was needed to be sure a jury got all the facts. And, if the state had not pursued death again, the Ellsworth family would likely have gotten what they hoped for–life without parole and legal finality. The state would have saved millions, given that capital trials are at least twice as expensive as noncapital trials (Tennessee Comptrollers Report, 2004), never mind the savings on the appeals.
Instead, taxpayers are on the hook for the cost of three capital trials in just this one case, and the process starts all over again.
Who does the death penalty system serve here? Who benefits from yet another death sentence in this case? Not the Ellsworth family. Not Tennessee taxpayers. No one.
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