The Shelby County District Attorney General’s office will not prosecute the second murder trial of Michael Rimmer, opting for a special prosecutor from outside the county.
Meanwhile, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich is defending Tom Henderson, the prosecutor in Rimmer’s first trial, who was censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court last month for failing to indicate to Rimmer’s attorneys that there was exculpatory evidence in the first trial.
Rimmer was convicted and twice sentenced to death for the 1997 murder of Ricci Ellsworth while she was working as a night clerk at a Memphis motel. Rimmer had been released from prison four months before Ellsworth’s murder where he served time for raping her. Her body was never found but the bloody check-in area and a nearby bathroom showed signs of a struggle. Rimmer was arrested in Indiana after authorities there stopped him and they found blood in the car that had DNA that was matched to Ellsworth.
Weirich said she has no plans to go beyond the censure from the court after removing Henderson as prosecutor in the long-running case months before the censure.
“At no time … did Mr. Henderson suppress evidence,” Weirich said last week in announcing her office is recusing itself from prosecuting Rimmer at his new trial. “It is irresponsible to suggest or imply otherwise for the purpose of generating publicity or for political gain. These are serious matters.”
At the heart of the serious matters is a witness who told police and the FBI that he saw two men in the check-in area while staying at the motel and assumed they were clerks, not knowing that Ellsworth was supposed to be on duty. He was shown a picture of Rimmer as part of a photo spread of possible suspects and did not identify him. He also provided police artists with enough details for sketches of the two men he said he saw.
Rimmer’s death sentence was sent back for resentencing once on appeal on other issues and he was sentenced by another jury to death a second time.
The new trial was ordered by Criminal Court Judge James Beasley in 2012 in a lengthy ruling that, in part, took Henderson to task for his response to a standard written defense request specifically for exculpatory evidence. Henderson responded in writing that there was none.
And Weirich makes a distinction on that point, noting Beasley did not remove Henderson from the case and that he granted a new trial based on ineffective representation by Rimmer’s defense attorneys.
“The name of the witness that viewed the photo spread was provided to defense counsel because they even referred to it in closing arguments,” she said. “Mr. Henderson indicated that there was no exculpatory evidence and that was a mistake. … It was a mistake. It was an error. It was nothing intentional.”
Another attorney pursued a complaint to the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which censured Henderson last month. The censure comes with a $1,700 fine and a public statement with no further disciplinary action or suspension.
“I can tell you that while I take this matter very seriously, I do not intend to take any further against Mr. Henderson,” Weirich said. “He has been punished by the Board of Professional Responsibility, is enduring a public censure and is facing financial penalties. Furthermore, I removed him from handling this case several months ago. To a career prosecutor, that is punishment in and of itself.”
The Tennessee District Attorney Generals conference will select the special prosecutor from outside Shelby County to try the case, which is scheduled to go to trial later this year.
Rimmer’s new defense attorneys had already filed a motion asking the court to disqualify the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office from trying the case because of Henderson’s conduct.
Weirich’s announcement and move to the District Attorneys conference makes the motion moot.
“In this case and in every case, our job is to make sure that justice is done. The continued involvement by our office in this case has and would create a distraction that the victims and the citizens of Shelby County do not deserve,” she said. “The special prosecutor comes in with clean eyes, not knowing anything about the investigation, the crime, the proof, the evidence we have – will have to start from scratch.”
That means a review of the evidence and an assessment of how to proceed with the case by the new prosecutor and not an automatic continuation of the case to a new trial.