Heirs Win Highest Wrongful Conviction Settlement in KY History

The Estate of William Virgil, Who Was Exonerated in 2017, Reaches Historic $28,000,000 Settlement

NEWPORT, KY — Attorneys for the heirs of a man wrongfully incarcerated in maximum security prison for more than 28 years for crimes he didn’t commit today announced Kentucky’s highest-ever settlement for a wrongful case — $28 million. Egregious police misconduct by the City of Newport, KY police department and several of its former officers formed the basis of the record settlement, according to the attorneys.

“For 28 years, William Virgil suffered the ultimate injustice.  As an innocent man, William was torn away from his friends and family.  While the criminal justice failed William and his family at every step, William fought tirelessly for the truth to surface and for those responsible for his wrongful conviction to be held accountable,” said Elliot Slosar of Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law, one of Virgil’s attorneys. “This lawsuit enabled the truth to come to light.  This settlement provides historic compensation to William’s family for the decades of wrongful incarceration that he suffered.”

“Today the City of Newport and its officers, in 28 million ways, has finally been held accountable for the tragic injustice that stole much of William’s life.  While he had a few years of freedom after being released from prison in December 2015, it is heartbreaking that William did not live long enough to see this day.”

In 1988, Virgil was found guilty and sentenced to 70 years’ imprisonment for the April 11, 1987 rape and murder of Newport Veterans Administration nurse Retha Welch, 54. Welch was raped, stabbed 17 times, and bludgeoned to death with a vase in her home.

Virgil always maintained his innocence, refusing to take a plea agreement for a crime that he did not commit. The Kentucky Innocence Project (KIP) accepted Virgil’s case in 2010 and its investigation proved that physical evidence, including hair and blood samples, were not connected to Virgil or the victim. Thanks to advances in DNA technology, a private lab was able to match the semen from the rape kit to three other men, not Virgil. Aided by the Exoneration Project (EP) at the University of Chicago, KIP unearthed further evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct in Virgil’s wrongful conviction.

 “Although wrongfully imprisoned for 28 years, William’s witty personality and infectious smile could not be caged,” said Amy Robinson Staples, another of Virgil’s attorneys at Loevy & Loevy. “His light shined extra bright both in December 2015 when he was first released from prison and again in January 2017 when he was finally exonerated. William was incredibly grateful to all who worked on his case, including the team from KIP and the EP who worked tirelessly to prove his innocence and obtain his freedom. I feel certain this settlement has finally brought William a bit of peace he was not able to obtain before his death.”

“William would celebrate today and be thankful.  This settlement is vindication for William and our family; and we want to thank his legal team for continuing his fight so fiercely.  In William’s absence and in his memory, I will celebrate for him today and be thankful for him because he is still loved and missed every single day,” said Jeri Coleman, a relative of William’s and the Administrator of his Estate. 

Besides the physical evidence showing Mr. Virgil had nothing to do with the crime, his lawsuit unearthed important evidence pointing to his actual innocence – evidence that Newport Officers withheld at his 1988 trial:

** The state’s star witness, a jailhouse informant named Joe Womack, testified that Mr. Virgil gave him a detailed and accurate confession of the Welch murder. In a 2020 deposition, however, Womack revealed that Virgil never confessed to him and that the trial prosecutor and Newport police officers fabricated the information he testified to at trial.

** Prior to 1988 trial, the prosecutors rehearsed with Womack the false story they had fed him, providing him with a “cheat sheet” to study details of the crime. For his trouble, the officers paid Womack and the prosecutor provided a favorable recommendation letter to the parole board, resulting in his release from prison.

** Mr. Womack’s 2020 deposition testimony clearing Mr. Virgil was confirmed by a key former Newport police officer defendant, Norm Wagner. Defendant Wagner admitted to paying cash to Womack and never documenting those payments in a police report.  As the District Court held when it granted Mr. Virgil a new trial: “It is self- evident that paying a witness ahead of his testimony is favorable impeachment evidence” that should have been disclosed.  

Retha Welch was one of at least three female homicide victims in the Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati area in the early months of 1987.  Mr. Virgil’s lawsuit uncovered that officers from St. Bernard, Cincinnati, and Norwood believed the homicides could have been committed by the same perpetrator and jointly investigated them. While the officers obtained information implicating other suspects in the murders, they withheld such evidence from Mr. Virgil and his counsel at trial. Virgil’s attorneys believe that no one else has ever been held to account for these murders.

Although this settlement is only with the City of Newport and its Officers, Mr. Virgil’s civil lawsuit has exposed egregious misconduct by officers from other police departments as well, including Cincinnati and Norwood. Mr. Virgil’s lawsuit against the City of Cincinnati and Norwood remains pending in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and is set for argument on April 26, 2023. Besides being the largest wrongful conviction settlement in Kentucky history, the $28M Virgil estate settlement is one of the largest wrongful conviction settlements in United States history. Besides Slosar and Robinson Staples, Mr. Virgil’s estate is also represented by Molly Campbell, Jon Loevy, Michael Kanovitz and Arthur Loevy of the Chicago-based civil rights firm, Loevy & Loevy Attorneys at Law. Loevy & Loevy is one of the nation’s largest civil rights law firms and has won more multi-million-dollar jury verdicts than any other civil rights law firm in the country.

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