Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich won't discipline a high-ranking prosecutor in her office who was publicly reprimanded by the Tennessee Supreme Court over the holidays, and she won't say why.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Henderson was censured by the state's highest court in December after he pleaded guilty in November to charges of misconduct and violating state rules governing prosecutors.
He received the "public rebuke and warning" from the court's Board of Professional Responsibility. He was also ordered to pay back to the board $1,745.07 in expenses associated with the matter.
When asked for a comment on the censure, Weirich issued a statement in an email defending Henderson's record in the Shelby County District Attorney's office. But Weirich refused to respond to a request for an interview to answer one question: Why would Henderson not receive any reprimand from her office for his actions?
"[The statement is] all she's going to say about it, but no punishment," said Larry Buser, a spokesman for Weirich's office.
At the center of the censure are two first-degree murder trials of Michael Rimmer. He was convicted both times — in 1998 and 2004 — for the murder of Ricci Ellsworth, a hotel clerk. Rimmer went to prison for raping her in 1989, which put him in the sights of law enforcement and prosecutors when Ricci went missing after an apparent attack in the hotel where she worked in 1997. Her body was never found.
Attorneys who have worked for Rimmer say Henderson purposefully hid exculpatory evidence that could have helped their client during the trials. An eyewitness identified two men with blood on their hands at the time and place of Ellsworth's disappearance. But the "identification and any documents referencing the identification were not turned over to defense counsel," according to a letter to the Board of Professional Responsibility from Kelly Gleason, who had worked as a post-conviction attorney for Rimmer.
Henderson was not available for comment, but in a reply to Gleason's original complaint in the case, he said he did give Rimmer's original defense attorneys the names and addresses of the witnesses he questioned but claimed they never looked at the information. Also, the suspect the eyewitness pointed to had a "good alibi," was among "hundreds" of "false leads" in the case, and was excluded from his case against Rimmer. Finally, Henderson said he did not suppress any information and would have turned over the evidence to attorneys if "I had recalled and or could have found it."
"I am guilty of faulty memory or recall, but this complaint claims that I am an evil, criminal lying miscreant," Henderson said in the November 2012 letter. "I submit my career, and the evidence in this case shows the complaint to be ill-founded and I urge you to dismiss it."
But a 2012 court review of the case by Shelby County Criminal Court judge James C. Beasley Jr. was enough to remove Henderson from the Rimmer case. The order from the court said, "Henderson purposefully misled counsel with regard to the evidence in this case" and that the state "failed to meet their responsibilities" under the law that requires prosecutors to disclose exculpatory evidence.
Both convictions of Rimmer have been vacated, and in 2012, he was granted a new trial. His attorneys want the Shelby County District Attorney's office disqualified from the case and have requested a special prosecutor to present the government's case.
District Attorney General Weirich said in her statement last week that the new trial was awarded because Rimmer's attorneys were "ineffective, not because of actions or inactions by the District Attorney General's office."