The story is long and convoluted, as most are when you go a bit below the surface. Thomas Henderson had been a prosecutor in Shelby County, Tennessee, since 1976, and by 1997, was the top trial guy in District Attorney Amy Weirich’s office. When the no-body case of a motel clerk, Ricci Ellsworth, came in, Henderson caught it.
From Memphis Flyer:
Officers from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and the Memphis Police Department found large amounts of blood in the employee bathroom, a cracked sink, bloody towels, and the seat had been torn off the toilet. Sheets were taken, as well as $600 from the register. Ricci Ellsworth, the motel night clerk, was gone. Her 1989 Dodge Dynasty was still in the parking lot. Her body has not been found. She disappeared, but not without a trace.
An eyewitness, James Darnell, told police he saw two white men with blood on their hands in the motel around the time Ellsworth went missing. Darnell thought one of them was a motel clerk because he was behind the office window and was handing what he thought was change to the other man. Their knuckles were bloody, he said, and he thought they had been fighting.
Darnell gave descriptions, which matched Billy Wayne Voyles, whose picture he later pulled out of a photo array. When Voyles was arrested, he claimed an alibi with eight witnesses. Henderson claimed the alibi witnesses were good. Sixteen years later, the defense said no one bothered to speak with the alibi witnesses, but instead focused on Michael Dale Rimmer, who had “a sporadic romantic relationship with Ricci Ellsworth and was convicted of raping her in 1989.” Nice guy, right. The perfect target for a no-body case, but for Darnell’s failure to pick him out of the photo array.
Cutting to the chase, Darnell’s ID of Voyles disappeared from the case, and when the defense sought Brady, neither Darnell nor Voyles was ever mentioned. Henderson affirmatively responded that he was “unaware” of any Brady. Michael Dale Rimmer was convicted and sentenced to death.
On appeal, the sentence was reversed and remanded. In 2004, he was sentenced to death again. Somehow, the fact that Darnell identified Voyles, and that the defense was never told, eventually came out, prompting Judge James Beasley to opine:
Henderson “purposefully misled counsel with regard to the evidence obtained in this case.” He said Henderson’s assertions in the 1998 and 2004 cases that “he knew of no evidence exonerating or exculpating (Rimmer) were blatantly false, inappropriate, and ethically questionable,” but it was not enough to reverse Rimmer’s conviction or sentence.
Rimmer will be retried due to ineffective assistance of counsel, though not because of Henderson’s concealment of Brady. But this time, Henderson won’t be the prosecutor.
“Those outside of this office may not understand what a punishment that is, but it was a huge step, and it was a tough conversation to have,” Weirich said. “We, as prosecutors, when we’re assigned a murder case — particularly a capital murder case — they become a part of us: the case, the family, and the victim.”
Henderson claims his concealment was “human error.” He just forgot to mention that there was an eyewitness who picked another guy from the photo array. His boss said “his crime amounts to a clerical mistake,” and he will remain in the office where he’s worked since 1976. Then there was the disciplinary review:
Henderson was censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Office of Professional Responsibility over the holidays.
The punishment the office handed down to Henderson is a “public rebuke and a warning to the attorney, but does not affect the attorney’s ability to practice law.” Henderson also had to pay the court costs that lead to the censure, which totaled $1,745.07.
That must have made his wrist sting. But Henderson offered his best defense to the charges:
Henderson said in his defense that the allegation that he committed perjury “is perhaps the most offensive.” He testified at the post-conviction hearing that “I would not do such a thing” and that the court found that he had not “proven that false testimony had been purposely presented.” He said it was an “unsupported allegation” and pointed to the fact that “I am still practicing and have 40 years of honorable service. All of those years of service are to be held for naught because of an allegation of an adversary?”
Ironically, this is the “first murder free” argument, that a person who has lived a good life for many years up until the moment he hasn’t, say by committing his first murder ever, should be given a pass for the wrong because of all the good. It rarely causes anyone to shed a tear.
The nature of exculpatory evidence, being unknown, easily concealed and entirely dependent on the prosecution for disclosure or dumb luck otherwise, doesn’t provide much faith that Henderson’s first “accidental” concealment is either a first or an accident. It’s not that it never happened before. It’s that he was never caught.
Yet, Henderson remains a prosecutor, upon whose integrity and veracity the rights of defendants rely, because, as District Attorney Weirich says, those “outside of this office” can’t appreciate how severe this punishment is.
It’s unlikely Weirich asked Rimmer how he felt about it, but then, he’s the guy who was convicted of a no-body murder despite the denial of Brady and doesn’t have 40 years of faithful service putting people in prison and on death row. Who cares what the potentially innocent guy thinks?
H/T Bad Lawyer