Last week, we told you about the story of Susan Jean King. King is a Kentucky woman who was convicted in 2008 for the 1998 murder of her ex-boyfriend, Todd Breeden. Recently, King had her motion for new trial denied despite the fact that a man, Richard Jarrell, confessed to the crime. The confession had details not known to the general public but was insufficient to win King’s freedom. The latest development in the case sets a bad example for how law enforcement agencies and innocence projects should cooperate and work together.
Louisville (KY) Metro Police Detective Barron Morgan heard Jarrell’s confession and immediately informed the Kentucky Innocence Project. A circuit judge commended Morgan, an 18-year veteran, for acting “with integrity and in the interests of justice.” However, this action, instead of being lauded, resulted in Morgan being transferred from being a detective in a narcotics unit to patrol and assigned to the graveyard shift. Details are now coming to light as Morgan is planning to file a whistle-blower lawsuit against the department alleging that the demotion was punishment for Morgan’s role in providing information to the innocence project. The police department denies Morgan’s claim and says the the transfer was part of a department-wide reorganization.
From the details now being reported, it appears that Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad, lead case detective Todd Harwood, and the police department did not want Jarrell’s confession to be known to anyone, especially the Kentucky Innocence Project. The whole story begins in May 2012 when Morgan and other detectives interviewed Jarrell after arresting him on a weapons charge. Jarrell said that he had killed Breeden on his 21st birthday 13 years earlier and provided details about the murder. Morgan said he contacted the Kentucky Innocence Project after Harwood refused to interview Jarrell and told Louisville detectives that “we were opening a can of worms,” Morgan later told the assistant chief in a memo. Morgan said that, when he re-interviewed Jarrell the next week, Jarrell told him that Harwood had come to talk to him but had given him the impression “he wanted him to keep his mouth shut.” Harwood denied he discouraged Jarrell from cooperating but was unable to produce a recording of the interview, saying he had lost his tape recorder.
Morgan’s superior officers were not happy with his contact with the KY Innocence Project. Documents reviewed by Louisville’s Courier-Journal show Morgan, an 18-year department veteran, came under suspicion within the department for assisting King. After Kentucky State Police complained in May that the detective was interfering with King’s conviction, which came after the crime went unsolved for eight years, Conrad ordered an investigation, according to the documents, which Morgan’s lawyer, Thomas Clay, obtained under an open-records request. “I understand the need for justice, but I’m not sure I understand contact with an outside group before we know what we’re dealing with,” Conrad wrote to his assistant chiefs on May 28.
“Unless there was some compelling reason for Detective Morgan to contact the Innocents (sic) Project, we need to initiate an internal investigation to understand why he didn’t treat the information in a confidential manner,” Conrad wrote to his deputies later the same day. The next day, Maj. David P. Ray told Assistant Chief Kenton Buckner in an email that he had spoken to a Kentucky State Police lieutenant colonel and “apologized on behalf of LMPD for Morgan sticking his nose in this.”
Police Chief Conrad now says that the emails were only an “initial reaction” and Morgan “should have taken this situation up the chain of command.” However, Conrad’s claim is contradicted a judge’s statement that Morgan only shared the confession after consulting with his supervisor and the county commonwealth attorney’s office.
Also, the Courier-Journal previously reported that, with King’s conviction threatening to unravel, the Kentucky State Police contacted the Louisville Metro Police Department in May and demanded that it bar one of its detectives from cooperating with the Innocence Project. Testifying in July during a hearing on King’s motion for a new trial, KSP Lt. Jeff Medley acknowledged that his captain ordered him to ask Louisville Metro Police commanders to call off Morgan because “he hadn’t investigated the case and didn’t know all the facts.”
Whether Morgan will prevail in his lawsuit remains to be seen. But the King case raises a serious question – what is a law enforcement agency’s ethical or moral obligation to disclose evidence of factual innocence to inmates and their attorneys? That is, if you come across evidence that someone is wrongfully incarcerated, should you tell someone? Common sense says absolutely “yes” in all cases. Yet, that’s not what happened in KY. To many, failure to do so means that an agency does not care if an innocent person remains in prison or does not want to admit they made a mistake in the inmate’s original conviction.
Here at the California Innocence Project, we try to form a cooperative working relationship with the police department or the district or state’s attorney’s office whether we are investigating the case or have started litigation proceedings. Sometimes we get cooperation, as in the Brian Banks case, and sometimes we don’t, as in the Daniel Larsen case. Our goal is to find out whether the state has convicted the right person has been convicted of a crime and if not, hopefully give the state information as to who the real perpetrator is. An innocent person in prison means that the real criminal could be in the community committing more crimes. But the actions of the Louisville Metro Police Department show a lack of concern for finding out the truth about a conviction and has the danger of discouraging others like Detective Morgan from coming forward to help innocence projects find that truth.