USA Today Investigates Shelby County DAs Handling of Death Penalty Case

Regardless of what we believe about the use of death penalty, we can agree that the very backbone of our criminal justice system rests on the tenet that anyone who is charged with a crime should receive a fair and impartial trial. We also trust that juries, who are asked to make life and death decisions about their fellow citizens, would, at the very least, be provided all the pertinent facts available in order to make the most informed decision possible, particularly given the stakes involved.

USA Today has uncovered yet another death penalty case out of Memphis where it appears that crucial evidence was not turned over to defense attorneys, and therefore, never heard by the jury: the case of Michael Rimmer.   

In 1997, Ricci Ellsworth, a 45 year old mother of two, vanished during her late shift at a Memphis Inn. Her body was never found. Her former boyfriend, Michael Rimmer–who had beaten, raped, and threatened to kill Ellsworth in the past–was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death for her murder. He is on death row today.  

Though it seems rather cut and dry, there is just one problem. An eyewitness, Army Sergeant James Darnell, pulled into the motel parking lot about the time that Ellsworth likely disappeared. He saw a man standing by a sedan in the parking lot with the trunk open. Darnell held the door open for the man, who he recalls seemed drunk, and they entered the reception area together. Darnell did not see Ellsworth in the lobby but instead saw a second man in the clerk’s office handing cash through the window to the man who had followed Darnell inside.  Both men were bleeding from the knuckles with cuts so bad that Darnell thought at least one of them would need stitches. He called police after seeing a report about Ellsworth on the news. The police showed him photographs. He couldn’t identify the man in the clerk’s office but easily identified the other man. 

The other man was not Michael Rimmer but Billy Wayne Voyles, for whom police were already searching.  Voyles had been convicted of attempted manslaughter after stabbing someone outside a Memphis bar during a robbery and had stopped checking in with his probation officer. He was located in Arkansas and interviewed for an hour by Memphis police.

What happens next goes to the heart of the matter. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has said since 1963 that the government has a constitutional duty to tell defendants about evidence that could help them prove their innocence or challenge their accusers. This is a basic right and the system cannot work properly if this does not happen.  However, in this case, defense attorneys were never told about Billy Wayne Voyles.  In fact, the Shelby County prosecutor told Rimmer’s defense attorneys at least twice that investigators had no exculpatory evidence.  During the sentencing hearing that put Rimmer on death row, defense attorneys specifically asked the lead detective on the case, Robert Shemwell, whether Darnell had been able to identify anyone. Shemwell said incorrectly that Darnell recognized Rimmer but later corrected himself saying that Darnell had not identified anyone.  Though eyewitness indentification has been shown to be faulty and cannot be exclusively relied upon in such cases, the issue here is not whether the identification was correct but that the defense was never told about it.    

And this case comes on top of other death penalty cases from Shelby County where evidence was not turned over to defense attorneys, including the cases of Gaile Owens and Gary Cone, both of whom spent over 20 years on death row before getting new sentences. Owens’ execution date was rapidly approaching  when Governor Bredsen finally intervened and reduced her sentence, saving her life. 

In 2008  in the Owens’ case, a federal appeals court judge took the Shelby County Prosecutors’ office to task for a “set of falsehoods” that was “typical of the conduct of the Memphis district attorney’s office.”  The very next year the U. S. Supreme Court ordered the federal court to review the case of Gary Cone, who also was sentenced to death in Shelby County, because the DA did not turn over evidence that could have mitigated a death sentence for Cone.

Since roughly 35% of the cases on Tennessee’s death row come from this one county, Tennesseans should be concerned. Regardless of one’s feelings about Michael Rimmer and what he deserves, the issue now is about the system and if it can be trusted. Attorneys on either side of the equation do not get the luxury of making their own rules. Everyone should have access to an equal playing field when going to trial, particularly when lives are at stake, and juries should have confidence that they are making the most informed decision that they can. Teresa Ciarloni, a juror on the Rimmer case, said that the new evidence, “Would have put doubt in our minds, I’m sure.” 

The issue uncovered by USA Today only highlights the central problem with the death penalty in Tennessee and around the country. The system is broken and cannot be trusted to decide who lives and who dies period.  The death penalty, a punishment in which there is no room for an error, exists within a system fraught with error. 

No one wants dangerous people out on the streets. This is not about accountability or public safety.  We can have both without the death penalty.  This is about basic fairness, access to equal justice, and ensuring that innocent people are not executed in our pursuit of the guilty. Ricci Ellsworth’s killer should be held accountable for this heinous crime, but the jury should have been given all the facts to make that determination.  They weren’t, and therefore, a miscarriage of justice may have occurred which benefits no one and may have let a killer go free.

Read the full story. 

Photo by Exothermic

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