William Virgil was almost 30 years behind bars after a crime he did not commit. After Kentucky police withheld evidence which could have exonerated him, Virgil was found guilty.
Yet Virgil won’t see any justice for that police misconduct, as he is now dead—the government roadblocks to his lawsuit so long and winding that they outlived him.
This is what qualified immunity allows. It’s a legal doctrine that permits local or state actors to violate you rights and not have to pay any civil penalties if they aren’t “clearly established”.
The cops in the middle of Virgil’s story are not to be outdone. DidDo not violate the “clearly established law”.
Retha Retha was attacked repeatedly and hit on her head with a knife, and then raped in Newport, Kentucky. Virgil, who had a relationship with Welch through Welch’s work at a prison ministry, was quickly identified as a suspect. He was convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence and released only after DNA testing had excluded him from being the murderer.
It is not possible to determine whether Virgil would still have been in prison if it wasn’t for the government’s malfeasance. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled in 2018 that it should have been plainly obvious to any reasonable police officer—even in 1988—that withholding evidence from a defendant is unconstitutional. Norman Wagner, a former Newport Police Department Officer refused to tell the court that he hired Joe Womack (a jailhouse informant) to testify in his favor against Virgil. Wagner allegedly provided Womack with details of the crime and offered to talk to the parole board if Womack consented. Wagner failed, together with Marc Brandt, to inform the defense of a possible serial killer investigation that could have been connected to Welch’s death and other suspects that had been identified.
“[Virgil]For the 6th Circuit, Judge Joan Larsen wrote in December 2018 that there were allegations that the officers attempted to frame him, that an inmate was coerced into testifying falsely that Virgil had confessed, and that they suppressed evidence about other suspects. If proven, such conduct would be a violation of bad faith, or the functional equivalent. Judge Joan Larsen for the 6th Circuit in December 2018 wrote that this was despite it being well known that officers were unable to suppress evidence regarding other suspects. IntentionallyConceal material or exculpatory evidence
Virgil died in January of this year—almost three years after that decision came down, and even longer after a lower court came to the same conclusion. The government tried to appeal, but his case was not allowed before a jury. Againto the exact same court, which had already ruled in Virgil’s favour.
“A reasonably trained police officer in 1988 would have certainly known that you have to disclose exculpatory evidence implicating other people in a homicide investigation,” says Elliot Slosar, an attorney at Loevy & Loevy, who is representing Virgil. That type of law was established in 1988 and 1968. We view their appeals as absurd because of this.
In early 2016, the suit was filed for the first time. The estate of Virgil is unlikely to be brought to trial before 2023. Invoking special protections, the government will continue to delay a claim multiple courts have ruled should go to a jury trial. “Qualified immunity…enable[s]Clark Neily, the senior vice president for legal research at Cato Institute, says that defendants may have been accused of misconduct in an attempt to prolong the litigation. “Unfortunately, some plaintiffs do end up dying during litigation….It’s a real tragedy.” Meanwhile, Virgil overcoming qualified immunity did not entitle him to any sort of judgement—it merely afforded him the privilege to impanel his peers and state his case, something his cousin will now do in his stead.
Slosar states that William “just always wanted justice” and uses a wide range of terms to describe it. He wanted to be heard in court. He wanted to show the world how he had been framed for a crime that he didn’t commit. He wanted the public to be able to witness evidence about who committed this horrible murder. William wanted the police to hold these officers accountable for each day he was taken from his family or spent in wrongfully held cells.
For someone who was sentenced to 28 years for an unrelated murder, this is perhaps a reasonable list. Yet, asking for the government’s help in ending Virgil’s life seems too much.