In 1987, 54-year-old Retha Welch, a Newport grandmother and prison minister, was killed in her apartment. William Virgil was arrested and convicted of her murder. Despite maintaining his innocence throughout his decades-long imprisonment, it wasn’t until 2015 that DNA evidence was tested and found that none of the semen samples found inside Welch’s body matched Virgil’s DNA. His conviction was overturned, and he was eventually exonerated of the crime, although officials still haven’t publicly stated they agree he is innocent.
Virgil’s case was featured in season 2 of The Enquirer’s podcast “Accused,” which highlighted several investigative avenues that detectives ignored in Welch’s death. For example, a witness claimed that a violent man named Isaac Grubbs had argued with Welch over the phone the day of her death, and Grubbs was later killed when Newport police shot him after they said he lunged at officers with a knife. The knife Grubbs had been wielding, which could have been forensically tested to determine if it was the same knife used to fatally stab Welch, was destroyed by officials. Tips that subsequently tied the knife-wielding Grubbs to Welch’s stabbing death were not investigated by detectives, who had quickly decided Virgil was the killer.
The police officers’ theory was rooted in Virgil having met Welch as a prison minister. As she did with other inmates, she invited Virgil to stay at her Newport apartment after his release from prison. She and Virgil’s friendship had sometimes been intimate. The only physical evidence tying Virgil to the crime scene was his fingerprint on a lamp. He was adamant that he had nothing to do with her death.
After decades of insisting its police officers arrested the right man, the city of Newport has settled a wrongful conviction case with Virgil’s family for a record-setting pretrial amount of $28 million. The figure represents $1 million for every year Virgil spent in prison for the stabbing death.
This settlement appears to be the largest pretrial settlement on record. However, Virgil didn’t live long enough to enjoy his legal victory. He died in January 2022, in a Cincinnati hotel room, where he had stayed the night before a medical checkup just shy of his 70th birthday. He hadn’t felt well since his release from prison.
The defendants in the case, which included the city of Newport, as well as several police officers, had appealed the trial order. However, testimony throughout the depositions highlighted egregious conduct in the investigation that likely would have hurt the city’s case before a jury. For example, one former police officer testified that he had paid a jailhouse informant who’d told the original jury that he’d heard Virgil confess to killing Welch. The officer had never previously disclosed paying the informant, who insisted on the stand he was testifying to keep women safe from Virgil. That informant later recanted his testimony and swore in an affidavit that he’d been paid to lie by the investigator.
Elliot Slosar of Loevy & Loevy, a Chicago civil rights firm, said that by settling the case pretrial, Newport residents and insurers were spared “catastrophic exposure” when compared with the amount of money a jury might have awarded after a trial. For example, in 2021, a pair of North Carolina brothers were awarded $75 million by a jury who determined they had been wrongfully convicted of raping and killing an 11-year-old girl in 1983.
Because Virgil died without a will, the $28 million settlement will be divided among nearly a dozen family members, including his cousin and longtime supporter, Jeri Colemon. However, Colemon.