SUNDAY EDITION | After 28 years in prison, man clings to new hope for release
“It’s a little bit short of madness to be incarcerated knowing you haven’t committed a crime,” William Virgil said in an interview.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – He says he was offered a guilty plea that would amount to a slap on the wrist for such a gruesome crime.
Seven years in prison – possibly cut to three or four years with good behavior -- for the brutal 1987 rape and murder of Retha Welch, a Veterans Administration nurse in Newport.
But William “Ricky” Virgil insisted he was innocent and turned down the deal, taking his case to trial, where he was found guilty and sentenced to 70 years in prison.
At his sentencing, Virgil remained defiant.
“I told them that they had the wrong guy and whoever it was that committed the crime was still out there running around,” Virgil said last week in an interview from the Kentucky State Reformatory.
He hasn’t budged from that position over the past 28 years, telling the state parole board in three different hearings that he was wrongly convicted, even though admitting guilt and remorse could go a long way towards his release.
“There’s no way I’m going to admit to something that I didn’t have anything to do with,” Virgil told WDRB, his voice low and calm. “It’s principle.”
Now 63, Virgil said he still wouldn’t have taken that 7-year plea deal in 1988, though he acknowledged that his stance has taken its toll.
“It’s a little bit short of madness to be incarcerated knowing you haven’t committed a crime,” Virgil said.
Instead, he has fought for his release, becoming a jailhouse legal expert for himself and other inmates. His case didn’t get any traction, however, until the Kentucky Innocence Project took him on as a client in 2010.
“I had been fighting it for 23 years by myself,” Virgil said. “I was overjoyed to know that someone was finally representing me…Without them, I don’t know what chance I would have.”
On Friday, after months of presenting new evidence in the case, the Innocence Project asked a Campbell Circuit Court judge to grant Virgil a new trial and release him from prison. The findings from five years of work include: DNA testing showed blood on Virgil’s clothes did not belong to Welch and semen in her was not his; hairs found on Welch’s clothing did not match Virgil; witnesses’ stories no longer held up under scrutiny; and other suspects were ignored.
“From our point of few, the new evidence shows that Virgil is innocent,” said Tim Arnold, one of the attorneys representing Virgil. “Most of us would have a difficult time spending 10 days in prison. The idea of spending 28 years in prison for a crime you didn’t commit is really too horrible to contemplate.”
Still, Virgil will have to wait at least a little longer.
At Friday’s hearing in Newport, Ky., Circuit Judge Fred A. Stine threw out Virgil’s conviction and ordered a new trial, which he called “the right thing to do” in light of the new DNA evidence.
Assistant Campbell County Attorney Adam Hill agreed to vacate the conviction, noting that there wasn’t DNA testing available in 1987 and Virgil deserved a new trial “out of fairness.”
But while Virgil had hoped to be released immediately and move into a religious men’s home in Carrollton, he will stay incarcerated until at least next week, when bond is set. Hill asked for a $1 million bond. The judge said he will rule on the bond amount next week.
“The DNA does not exonerate Mr. Virgil,” Hill said. “It merely shows another person was present.
Evidence falls apart
She was a white 54-year-old mother of four, a psychiatric nurse and an ordained minister who visited inmates.
He was 35, a black man just released from prison on rape and robbery convictions -- “bad choices,” Virgil said, though he denies he raped anyone.
Despite their differences, Virgil claims they met through a friend and started a relationship, staying with her three to four days a week.
On April 11, 1987, Welch’s body was found in a blood-filled bathtub of her Newport, Ky., apartment. She was reported to have been raped, stabbed repeatedly and bludgeoned with a vase. Her car and several items from her apartment were missing.
Virgil, who was living mostly in Cincinnati at the time, claims he had no idea when Welch died, only learning about it later from a parole officer.
But evidence, according to police and prosecutors, quickly pointed to Virgil, though it was all circumstantial.
A man who was dating Welch said he saw Virgil outside her apartment days before her body was discovered. His clothes and shoes had blood on them. (At the time, there was not enough blood on Virgil’s clothes for testing and DNA was not yet used as evidence in criminal cases.)
Virgil’s fingerprint was found on a lamp in Welch’s apartment. A bloody palm print on the wall couldn’t be matched to anyone involved in the case.
A jailhouse informant claimed Virgil confessed to him while the two shared a jail cell. A former girlfriend claimed Virgil asked for her help in killing Welch.
But the case falls apart with a closer look and advances in technology, Arnold said.
It was later revealed that the inmate had been in an adjoining cell -- a fact that contradicted key parts of his earlier testimony.
And the ex-girlfriend’s testimony was prompted by the woman’s anger at Virgil and her own mental illness, memory loss and extensive drinking, according to the Innocence Project.
The real evidence of Virgil’s innocence, however, has only emerged in recent years through DNA testing, attorneys for Virgil say.
When the Innocence Project agreed to take on Virgil’s case in 2010 -- having received a grant to investigate cases where DNA evidence could lead to exoneration -- they first tried to get blood stains on a sweatshirt and tennis shoe and a rape-kit slide taken from the victim tested.
But prosecutors objected. At the time, state law said that testing was only available for death row inmates in Kentucky.
In 2013, at least in part because of Virgil’s case, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing such testing for other inmates serving time for violent felonies.
“I was glad the door was open for everything to be tested,” Virgil said. “I knew DNA testing would show I was innocent.”
The DNA rape kit – which couldn’t be found until the State police recovered it -- showed semen from three different individuals, but not from Virgil.
The blood on Virgil’s sweatshirt and shoes was his own, not Welch’s. Hairs found on Welch were not Virgil’s.
In addition, the project claims police ignored at least six other suspects, including Isaac Grubbs, who had threatened Welch and was shot and killed by police the week Welch was found. A witness at the trial who owned a pay fishing lake said she overhead Grubbs threaten someone during a phone conversation at the lake on April 11, 1987.
The witness said she later looked up the number he had dialed and discovered it was Welch’s.
A knife Grubbs used to attack two police officers before he was shot was never tested for blood or hair and was later destroyed, the Innocence Project claims.
Police denied Virgil’s request for a polygraph test, according to court records.
“He has been in prison for (28) years for a crime we now know he did not commit,” Linda Smith, director of the Innocence Project told the judge Friday.
"I can't believe it's coming up again"
Nearly two decades after Welch was murdered, her family members remember Welch as a “great nurse, a caring person,” said one of her sons, Tony Berling.
“She would have been a heck of a grandma," Gerry Berling, another of Welch’s sons, told WDRB. His mother’s death was “devastating” to their family, but the arrest and sentencing of Virgil gave them some peace. Still, he also said he wants to see “justice served,” whatever that may be.
“If the guy is innocent, I would like to at least give him a chance,” Gerry Berling said. “I don’t want to keep anybody in jail that is an innocent person. I just hope the justice system works."
Both brothers said they had not been told by prosecutors about the court hearing on Friday.
“I’m distraught; I’m confused; I can’t believe it’s coming up again,” Tony Berling said. “I hate even thinking about it again.”
A daughter of Welch’s tightly held a photo of her mother in the courtroom on Friday, her eyes red from crying. The woman declined to speak with reporters but was visibly angry, at one point loudly calling Virgil a liar.
Hill, the prosecutor currently handling Virgil’s case, has declined interview requests.
But in court, Hill said DNA shows that semen found on Welch’s clothes belonged to Virgil and pointed out that he has a lengthy criminal history. And he has said that other evidence -- including fingerprints -- show Virgil had been in Welch’s apartment at some point.
Attorneys for Virgil don’t deny that evidence, saying their client has admitted to having relationship with Welch and DNA in her home would not be unexpected.
The Innocence Project has helped exonerate 13 people since it began in 2001. If released, Virgil would be the longest serving inmate of that group.
The group believes the DNA evidence could find Welch’s real killer, perhaps by testing Grubbs’ relatives or other murder suspects known to police in 1987.
“The wrong done to Virgil must be made right and the new investigation must begin,” project attorneys argued in court records.
Virgil has worked as a certified legal aide in prison, helping other inmates appeal their own cases and relying on his own fight and faith to pass the time.
“Sometimes drastic things bring about change in your life,” Virgil said about his Christian faith.
Virgil said his mother died in 1978; he missed his father’s funeral in 2005.
“He was really all I had,” Virgil said.
If Welch’s family is angry at him, it is misplaced, he added. Instead, he said, they should be upset with prosecutors and police.
“I didn’t kill their mother,” Virgil said.
And while Virgil said anger ate away at him for many years, he claims he is more at peace now.
“Eventually you just have to deal with it,” he said. “If I would have remained angry and mad for 28 years, I don’t think I could be sitting here in the state of mind I have.”
And if the new trial doesn’t go his way?
“I’m always going to fight for my freedom,” Virgil said. “Whatever they do…it’s all a part of the plan [God] has.”
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