A Kentucky man who spent 28 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit has been awarded a record-breaking $28 million settlement for the years that he was wrongfully incarcerated, but he won’t be able to get any of it.
William “Rick” Virgil died at 69 in January 2022, more than a year before city officials in Newport, Kentucky, decided to compensate him $1 million for each year he was behind bars. The civil case was prolonged by the officers’ attempts to appeal.
Virgil was convicted in 1988 based on the jailhouse informant’s testimony and circumstantial evidence, reports show. He served 28 of his 70-year sentence before being released in December 2015 after DNA excluded him from the crime.
“William couldn’t live long enough to see justice,” Virgil’s attorney, Elliot Slosar, said. “William as a human being and William’s case will have caused significant change in the criminal justice system.”
Retha Welch, a white psychiatric nurse who he had roomed and had an “on again, off again” sexual relationship with, had been found dead on her bathroom floor in 1987. She had been raped and stabbed 28 times and struck on the head.
However, Virgil was adamant that he was innocent.
One of the detectives on the case reportedly paid the man’s former cellmate and promised to write a favorable letter to the parole board to testify that Virgil told him he committed the crime, the informant later admitted.
Virgil’s ex-girlfriend, Sue Daniels, who had mental health problems and suffered memory loss from a car accident, also testified that Virgil asked her for help killing the woman. But she later admitted that prosecutors stopped her probation from being revoked in exchange for her testimony. She also had a grudge against her former boyfriend and once shot at him and missed.
Detectives also ignored white suspects in the case, including James Becker, a man Welch was seeing at the time.
Vigil filed the civil lawsuit against two former Newport police officers. He also sought civil relief from the city, Norwood, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio, which also had detectives assigned to the case.
Despite the new findings, the Newport officers still pushed for an appeal based on qualified immunity.
Newport’s city manager, Tom Fromme, told WCPO that city officials “felt it was prudent to settle this case due to the current climate of anti-police sentiment and that the case was over 35 years old.”
“We strongly believe that the Newport Police Department actions and conduct were appropriate and professional,” he said.
Nearing 70 years old and having spent several years in prison, Virgil battled cardiac and renal problems and struggled to secure health care coverage, according to his cousin Jeri Colemon.
Colemon told Cincinnati Enquirer he had difficulty getting Medicaid or Medicare because he had no paycheck stubs. He died hours before seeking medical treatment and a week after finally receiving his medical cards.
“I get choked up,” Colemon said. “As much as he had gone through and survived and to (die from) something medical that we have systems in place for, but there was that little slit, that caveat.”
Virgil had fought for decades to clear his name and regain his freedom. He was implicated in the crime by Becker.
Becker told police he had a disagreement with Welch four nights before her murder because she said she planned to allow a man named “Rick” to stay at her apartment. They hadn’t spoken since, but he saw her talking to a Black man earlier that day outside of her apartment.
Virgil had reportedly been in the Veterans Administration Hospital where Welch worked on April 9, 1987, the day Becker said he saw the Black man outside the slain woman’s home. He admitted being angry about Welch talking to the Black man but told police he learned about her murder on the news and called them.
Detectives also ignored Isaac Grubbs, a white man who had called and threatened Welch two days before her body was found. That same day, police shot and killed Grubbs while he was wielding a knife.
The medical examiner determined Welch was killed two to three days before she was found, on April 13, 1987. Grubbs’ knife was submitted into evidence, but it was not used in Virgil’s trial to rule out his guilt.
However, in 2010, the Kentucky Innocence Project successfully pushed for a review of DNA in the case. None of the specimens collected matched Virgil. He was granted a new trial in 2015, and his conviction was overturned. The state later dismissed the charges.
“We’ve spent the last half decade trying to show how William was framed for a crime he didn’t commit,” Slosar said. “Our team did dozens of depositions, and we got documents from all these police departments that were never turned over, and eventually, we were granted a trial.”
The multi-million dollar award, which is the largest pretrial settlement on record, according to Slosar, will be disbursed between Virgil’s family members.
“I know there are some things he wanted to do for people to thank them for supporting his family members that he wasn’t here for,” Colemon said. “He missed his father’s funeral. There were a lot of people that took care of his dad because he wasn’t there.”