Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for 1997 Murder of Ex-Girlfriend

April 16, 2021

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the death sentence for Michael Dale Rimmer, convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1997. This was Mr. Rimmer’s second conviction for the crime, after his original conviction was overturned and a new trial was ordered.

The night of February 7, 1997, Ricci Lynn Ellsworth left her home to go to her job as an overnight desk clerk at the Memphis Inn in Shelby County.  She disappeared that night, leaving behind her purse, her wedding band, her car, and a chaotic and bloody crime scene. Her family never heard from her again, and her body was never found.

Years earlier, Ms. Ellsworth and Mr. Rimmer had a tumultuous romantic relationship. After it ended, in 1989, he pled guilty to raping her. In prison for the rape, Mr. Rimmer told a fellow inmate he would kill Ms. Ellsworth once he was released.

After Ms. Ellsworth disappeared, witnesses at the Memphis Inn that night described a man there who fit Mr. Rimmer’s description, with blood on his hands. The man put something heavy and wrapped in a blanket into the trunk of a maroon Honda.

About a month later, Mr. Rimmer was arrested in Indiana, driving a maroon Honda. Tests indicated that blood found inside the Honda matched blood found at the hotel crime scene, and that both were the blood of Ms. Ellsworth.

Once in prison, Mr. Rimmer made several attempts to escape. While incarcerated, witnesses said, he described the murder and the bloody crime scene to another inmate. He never offered authorities any assistance in finding Ms. Ellsworth’s body.

At Mr. Rimmer’s first trial in 1998, a jury convicted him of murdering Ms. Ellsworth. After lengthy appeals, that first conviction was overturned. Mr. Rimmer was tried again in 2016. A second Shelby County jury convicted him of first degree murder and felony murder. The jury sentenced him to death.

Mr. Rimmer appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the convictions and the sentence. The Tennessee Supreme Court is required to review all death penalty cases, so Mr. Rimmer’s case was automatically appealed.

On appeal, Mr. Rimmer contended that his second conviction violated the double jeopardy clause in the constitution. The Court held double jeopardy did not bar his retrial.

Mr. Rimmer also argued the trial court should not have allowed DNA evidence from the maroon Honda because police released the car before his attorneys could inspect it. The Court noted that police technicians took much evidence from the car, including nearly 100 photographs, blood-stained samples from the upholstery, and hair and fiber samples. All of that evidence, the Court observed, was available to Mr. Rimmer’s attorneys. It held police had no duty to keep the Honda indefinitely and found no error in admitting the DNA evidence.

Mr. Rimmer challenged the admission of evidence of his escape attempts and his 1989 conviction for raping Ms. Ellsworth. The Court said the escape attempts showed consciousness of guilt, and the rape conviction showed motive, identity, and premeditation. It found no error in admitting either type of evidence. 

After a review of all of the evidence, the Court affirmed the convictions. It determined that the death sentence for Mr. Rimmer was not disproportionate to the penalty imposed in other similar cases. The Court affirmed the sentence of death.

Justice Sharon G. Lee concurred but disagreed with how the Court, as required by statute, determined whether Mr. Rimmer’s death sentence was excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. The Court considered only a narrow group of first‑degree murder cases in which the State sought the death penalty. In Justice Lee’s view, the Court should have conducted a broader review by considering all first-degree murder cases, including cases in which the State sought the death penalty and cases in which the State sought life in prison. After applying this broader analysis, Justice Lee agreed that Mr. Rimmer’s death sentence was neither excessive nor disproportionate because, considering his personal background and crimes, his case was more like those cases in which the State sought the death penalty than those cases in which the State sought life in prison.

To read the majority opinion in State of Tennessee v. Michael Rimmer, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the separate concurring opinion authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.