In a troubling example of a bungled and costly case that ill-served the victim, her family, and Tennessee taxpayers, Shelby County Judge James C. Beasley Jr. overturned the murder conviction of Tennessee death row inmate Michael Dale Rimmer late Friday afternoon in a 212-page order in which he concluded that Rimmer’s 1998 counsel and his resentencing counsel “provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to properly investigate and present evidence…” The result: “…the court’s confidence in the verdicts has been undermined and reliability in the verdicts cannot be had.”
The prosecution was less than forthcoming about witness evidence that was contrary to their theory of Rimmer as perpetrator. Testimony from a man who may have stumbled onto the scene just following the crime was undiscovered by Rimmer’s lawyers.
In a USA Today article, Brad Heath writes that the judge’s decision was based on the “seriously deficient” investigation by Rimmer’s “overburdened” lawyers. Heath’s previous USA Today article here provides more background on the case.
The victim, Ricci Ellsworth, disappeared—leaving blood and evidence of a violent struggle—from the Memphis hotel where she worked in February 1997. Her body was never found.
Rimmer and Ellsworth had dated and he had been convicted of and imprisoned for raping her. Fellow inmates said he had threatened to kill her. Her disappearance came after he was released from prison.
A witness—unknown to Rimmer’s lawyers—said he saw two men with blood on their hands in the hotel at the time the victim disappeared. The witness identified in a photo lineup another man under investigation for a different stabbing and did not select Rimmer.While acknowledging that Rimmer’s counsel could have discovered this exculpatory evidence, the judge said that Tom Henderson, the lead prosecutor who now supervises Memphis’s criminal prosecutions, made “blatantly false, inappropriate” statements relating to the evidence.
According to Heath’s article, the Memphis prosecutor’s office has come under scrutiny after claims in other cases that the office did not disclose exculpatory evidence to the defense.
The bottom line: Due to deficient defense lawyering and prosecutors’ lack of full disclosure of exculpatory evidence, the perpetrator of a murder that is more than fifteen years old is still uncertain and public confidence is diminished in the professionals and process that produced this dissatisfying result. This case provides a strong argument for open discovery, approved by the American Bar Association in 1994.
Here is Judge Beasley’s order.