A frustrating and disappointing decision comes from a case in Kentucky. Susan Jean King, incarcerated since 2008 for manslaughter in the death of her ex-boyfriend, had her motion for new trial denied even though a man confessed to the crime. The judge made his decision despite finding that the other man’s confession provided a “startling level of detail about the murder.” Spencer Circuit Judge Charles R. Hickman said the confession with “reasonable certainty” would change the result if King were granted a trial. But he declined to order one because she pleaded guilty in 2008, while maintaining her innocence, and wasn’t convicted at trial. “A motion for a ‘new trial’ logically suggests that there was an ‘old trial,’ and that is not the case ,” Hickman ruled Friday in an eight-page order.
The shooting death of Kyle “Deanie” Breden, whose body was found in the Kentucky River in 1998, went unsolved for eight years until Kentucky State Police Detective Todd Harwood picked it up as a cold case in 2006 and in three weeks identified King as the chief suspect. Facing life in prison if convicted of murder, King in 2008 entered an Alford plea to manslaughter and accepted a 10-year sentence that left her eligible for parole in only two years. The Kentucky Innocence Project began investigating her case after concluding it would have been physically impossible for her to have thrown Breeden’s body off a bridge into the river; King had only one leg and weighed 97 pounds at the time of the offense.
Then in May, Richard Thomas Jarrell Jr., after being arrested in Louisville for allegedly firing a shotgun into a home, told detectives he had killed Breeden. He gave details about the crime that were not commonly known. Jarrell told police that Breeden stole $20 from him. Jarell said he lured Breeden to an abandoned home where he shot him twice and then tied his legs with a cord. Jarell said he killed Breeden on his 21st birthday, which was the day Breeden was murdered. Jarell even knew the clothing Breeden had on that day.
However, Judge Hickman noted that Jarell later recanted his confession and was not sure which Jarrell statement was the truth. But Hickman also said that the confession would have probably produced a different result at trial. Ultimately, Hickman ruled that it would be inappropriate to apply a new trial standard to this case since King never went to trial. But why allow this motion to be filed and then hold a two-day hearing in July if King did not have a legal right to a new trial? The answer remains unknown as Hickman never addressed the issue or gave an explanation. The judge could have made a decision on Jarrell’s credibility but seems to have defaulted to a procedural rule to deny King’s freedom.
This case bears similarities to the Brian Banks case. Facing 41 years-to-life for a rape charge, Banks pled no contest and received a 5 year sentence. After being released from prison, Banks continued his efforts to prove his innocence. Years later, his accuser, Wanetta Gibson, recanted her testimony on tape. Similar to the witness in King’s case, she later tried to back away from her recorded statement. However, unlike King’s case, the district attorney believed the initial account to be credible and agreed to the reversal of Banks’ conviction. It is hard to imagine the injustice if Banks was unable to clear his name because of a procedural technicality.
There is concern about convicting the innocent. Yet, how are King and other wrongfully convicted persons supposed to prove their innocence? The court system is supposed to correct the flaws in the justice system but seems to always present obstacles to the wrongfully convicted to work against that goal. I think King’s lawyer, Linda A. Smith, director of the Kentucky Innocence Project, summed it up best, saying she was “beyond disappointed” in the ruling, which she said didn’t serve “the greater purpose of justice.” Even though King is scheduled to be released on November 30, the continuing efforts by King and her lawyers to clear her name is needed to prove that justice can be served.