Vindicated: After 28 years in Kentucky prison, William Virgil walks free

By Jason Riley

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William Virgil arrives for court on Jan. 6, 2017 (Photo by Jason Riley, WDRB News)

NEWPORT, Ky., (WDRB) – After insisting he was innocent for decades – including 28 years spent in prison – William Virgil has finally been vindicated, as a judge dropped charges against him Friday for the 1987 murder of a Veterans Administration nurse in Newport.

Virgil’s conviction was thrown out a year ago, and he was released from prison on bond thanks in large part to DNA testing that was not available when he was found guilty.

Prosecutors had said there was still enough evidence to convict Virgil and a retrial was scheduled for April 24, but during a hearing in Campbell Circuit Court on Friday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Michelle Snodgrass recommended dismissing the murder case because a grand jury last month found there was not enough evidence to move forward.

Judge Julie Reinhardt Ward agreed, dismissed the case without prejudice, which means it could be brought back up again.

Snodgrass said it is “not a declaration of innocence,” just what grand jury decided based on current evidence. The case remains open and Snodgrass said evidence was being sent for further DNA testing.

Virgil immediately hugged his attorneys with the Kentucky Innocence Project, which has been working on his case since 2010. It is the 14th person the state Innocence Project has helped exonerate.

In an interview with reporters after he was set free on Friday, Virgil, 66, was asked if he was angry.

“Why would I be angry?” he said. “It’s a waste of time.”

Defense attorneys for Virgil have filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit and had asked the judge to find prosecutorial misconduct.

“He was framed,” Elliott Slosar, the attorney for William Virgil said on Friday. 

Snodgrass says she has found no wrongdoing.

On April 11, 1987, Retha 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 fell apart in recent years.

Judge Fred Stine overturned Virgil’s conviction in December 2015 based on the findings from the Kentucky Innocence Project, which 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.

Last month, Virgil and his attorneys filed a federal lawsuit in Covington alleging police and prosecutors “manipulated witnesses, fabricated evidence and withheld exculpatory information that would have demonstrated his absolute innocence of this crime.”

The Innocence Project alleges, for example, that prosecutors were responsible for destroying a knife in 2005 that had been used as evidence during Virgil’s trial “with full knowledge that forensic testing of the knife could lead to Mr. Virgil’s complete exoneration.”

Prosecutors asked a judge to order the knife destroyed without Virgil being present or being provided notice that such a request took place, according to court records. The knife had been linked to another suspect in Welch’s death.

The Innocence Project claims nearly 100 pieces of physical evidence from the trial have been retained, including two other knives.

Virgil’s attorneys also allege that the jailhouse informant who told jurors Virgil confessed to him while the two shared a jail cell recanted his testimony in a sworn affidavit.

In a 2015 interview with WDRB, Virgil said 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 — but 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 told WDRB News.

He hasn’t budged from that position over the past 30 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.

For years, he had 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.

“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.”

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