The Louisville Metro Police Department has settled a whistleblower lawsuit from an officer who alleged he was retaliated against for helping a woman whose conviction followed a Kentucky State Police investigation that’s been called into question.
The lawsuit—filed initially by one-time narcotics detective Barron Morgan and later joined by Lt. Richard Pearson—also alleged that the state police trooper who led that investigation lied under oath, tampered with evidence and intimidated a witness to maintain the questionable conviction.
Morgan, who was transferred to a patrol position, asked for $400,000 and reinstatement to the LMPD narcotics unit; the department instead agreed to pay $450,000 but would not give Morgan back his old job, said Thomas Clay, Morgan’s attorney. LMPD and Morgan agreed to settle on Tuesday. Pearson is challenging a five-day suspension; his case has not yet been resolved.
Morgan and Pearson allege they were retaliated against by superiors who felt Morgan’s inquiries into the closed state police case would upset the department’s cozy relationship with KSP, according to court documents. The allegations in the court documents also suggest that Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer and Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad have a friendship that goes back to their college days.
The lawsuit revolves around the case of Susan Jean King, a Spencer County woman who state police Sgt. Todd Harwood arrest for the 1998 murder of her ex-boyfriend, Kyle “Deanie” Breeden.
A ‘Cold Case’ Warms Up
Two fishermen found Breeden’s body in Henry County in 1998—and state police detectives concluded that none of their original suspects, including Susan Jean King, was the culprit, investigative reports said.
The case went unsolved for nearly eight years.
On May 22, 2006, then-trooper Todd Harwood was assigned to investigate the Breeden “cold case,” according to a commendation he received.
King was indicted in 2007.
She’d taken the advice of her public defender at the time and pleaded guilty with an Alford plea on charges of manslaughter and evidence tampering, meaning she did not concede guilt but agreed that prosecutors had the evidence to convict her.
The alternative was life in prison.
But Harwood’s investigation is riddled with inconsistencies, according to allegations made in three separate lawsuits—two filed filed on behalf of King and the whistleblower lawsuit.
In April 7 testimony to the Spencer County grand jury that indicted King, Harwood didn’t mention that before Breeden’s death King had a leg amputated at the hip following a traffic accident. She uses crutches or a wheelchair to get around. Police records indicate that Breeden’s body was thought to be thrown over the Gratz Bridge.
“Is she a bigger woman than him?” asked one of the grand jury members. “Does she get him down and shoot him, or—”
“No,” Harwood replied. “She’s actually a very, very small woman. I mean, Susan King is probably 100 pounds wet.”
Another question posed by the grand jury concerned how King was able to physically manipulate Breeden’s body.
“I don’t know if she was capable of it by herself,” Harwood said.
In a filing in the 2013 whistleblower suit, Innocence Project director Linda Smith alleged Harwood committed perjury when he provided “testimony about ballistic evidence which was demonstrably false” to the Spencer County grand jury which indicted King.
In May 2012, King asked for a new trial. To the Spencer Circuit Court, her lawyers submitted Innocence Project investigators’ point-by-point refutation of Harwood’s investigation. The documents mention an interview with an unidentified KSP trooper in the agency’s “firearms department” that would cast doubt on ballistics evidence used against King. The trooper told the Innocence Project that degraded fragments of a .22 caliber round that Harwood recovered from King’s residence “was not consistent with the .22 caliber magnum bullet removed from the victim,” Kyle Breeden.
Morgan was also aware of the ballistics question.
“Morgan stated that this match would have been impossible due to the fact that the weapon and the bullets found were not compatible,” Pearson wrote in a April 2013 Louisville Metro Police memo to Conrad.
King, then a hairdresser in Eminence, Ky., spent six and a half years at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Peewee Valley as a result of Harwood’s investigation, and was released in November of 2012, Smith said. A Spencer Circuit judge denied her request for a “new” trial in an October 2012 order and opinion, stating that it would be “inappropriate” because King entered a guilty Alford plea and no verdict existed that could be changed. The question of a new trial is currently with the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
The Spencer Circuit Judge, Charles Hickman, also wrote: “If King had a prior trial, rather than entered an Alford plea, the Court agrees that Jarrell’s confession would be evidence that ‘with reasonable certainty, change the verdict or probably change the result, if a new trial was granted.’”
On May 20, 2009, KSP Commissioner Brewer awarded Harwood with a special commendation for his work on the Breeden case.
“The determination, commitment and professionalism of Trooper Harwood exemplifies those standards held in highest regard by the Kentucky State Police,” Brewer wrote in the commendation letter.
But for all the evidence that purports to show King’s innocence, it was a confession from another party that set in motion the events that would make Morgan a thorn in the side of his superiors.
A Confession to a Closed Case
Richard Jarrell first came to the attention of law enforcement when he was arrested in Louisville two years ago following an attempted murder of one of LMPD Det. Barron Morgan’s drug informants.
It wasn’t long until Jarrell began opening up to Morgan about a string of murders in the hopes of reducing the sentence of his “brother,” who was apprehended on federal charges in another state.
In police reports and LMPD e-mail correspondence included in the whistleblower lawsuit, detectives tell how Jarrell brags about the number of people he’s killed.
“Detective,” said Jarrell, according to Jefferson Circuit Court documents. “I killed a lot of motherfuckers.”
Morgan immediately contacted LMPD homicide Det. Russ Scott, who conducted an interview with Jarrell where he intimated having murdered at least two people in the city. But when it came to the killing of a Spencer County plumber—Kyle “Deanie” Breeden—Jarrell went into explicit detail, according to Jefferson Circuit Court documents.
According to those same records, in the telling of the murder to LMPD homicide detectives, Jarrell said Breeden had stolen $20 from Jarrell to buy crack cocaine—and that was initially his motivation to kill Breeden. But Jarrell told police that he really killed Breeden “just to do it.”
On an October afternoon, Jarrell told police, he lured Breeden to an abandoned house under the pretense of picking up some money from his father to celebrate his 21st birthday. Breeden approached the cattle gate fence where Jarrell fired a .22 caliber revolver from his coat sleeve, and fired a shot into the back of his “best friend’s” head.
“I blowed his fuck’in brains out,” Jarrell told LMPD, according to a police report included in the motion for a new trial to the Spencer Circuit Court.
Jarrell told police he fired another shot in the back of Breeden’s skull for good measure before dragging the body off to the side of the house.
Worried that the body might be discovered, Jarrell said he returned to the scene sometime later and hauled Breeden’s lifeless frame into the trunk of his car after tying the body to a concrete block with a guitar amplifier cord.
Jarrell made it to the Henry-Owen County border where he stopped on the two-lane Gratz Bridge. The overpass was well lit, he said. No cars were coming from either direction, so Jarrell popped the trunk.
Laughing to detectives in his confession, Jarrell said he wrestled the “fat piece of shit” out and dropped the nearly 200 pound body some 40 feet into the Kentucky River.
At the time of Jarrell’s interview with LMPD, Breeden’s murder had been solved four years earlier by KSP Sgt. Harwood after he arrested King, who was serving a 10-year sentence.
A week after receiving this confession, the KSP’s Harwood—who had declined to interview Jarrell while Jarrell was in LMPD custody—visited him in the Louisville jail, according to allegations in the Jefferson Circuit Court case.
After that, Morgan said, Jarrell declined to talk further about any information he had.
“I re-interviewed Mr. Jarrell the following week and he informed me that Sgt. Harwood came to the jail and interviewed him,” Morgan told LMPD assistant chief Kenton Buckner in a May 2012 e-mail that is part of the lawsuit in Jefferson Circuit Court. “He continued stating that he got the impression that Sgt. Harwood wanted him to keep his mouth shut and not talk about the Breeden case.”
Harwood denied pressuring Jarrell to change his confession during a two-day hearing in a Spencer Circuit Court in July 2012. State police also said there were major inconsistencies in Jarrell’s telling of the murder, including the time of Breeden’s death, the type of vehicle Jarrell was driving and the lighting on the bridge.
In a state police interview, days after the KSP investigator visited the city jail, Jarrell recanted to having killed Breeden altogether, according to a Spencer Circuit judge’s order denying King a “new” trial.
In the same document, Jarrell indicated to state police that he’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was taking medication for the condition.
According to the whistleblower lawsuit, Morgan’s actions following this series of events would upset his Louisville Metro Police supervisors, laying bare their chief concern: Don’t upset Kentucky State Police.
KSP, LMPD Relationship At-Risk?
Pearson gave Morgan permission to contact the Kentucky Innocence Project and Morgan was even encouraged by a prosecutor in the Jefferson Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, according to documents filed in court. The non-profit group had been independently looking into King’s case for at least three years, and was eager to hear what new evidence Morgan had.
Two weeks after Jarrell gave police his confession, the Innocence Project filed a motion for King in Spencer Circuit Court to request a new trial for her.
While Spencer Circuit Court Judge Charles Hickman commended Morgan for sharing the information so quickly, some Louisville Metro Police commanders weren’t so pleased.
According to court records, their initial reaction to Morgan’s inquiries centered on how upset state police were with the city detective.
LMPD Major David Ray was among Morgan’s more vocal critics in command, suggesting early on that disciplinary action against the detective was warranted.
“Off morgan (sic) may also be making more of this than is really there,” he said in an e-mail obtained by WFPL.
Ray had also apologized on the city’s behalf to a KSP commander for “Morgan sticking his nose in this.”
In a June 2012 e-mail, Ray, who oversees the major crimes division, said another state police commander had called concerning Morgan “interfering with their old homicide case.”
“I got the impression that this is causing some hard feelings with KSP and possibly damaging our department’s relationship with them,” Ray wrote.
Before that, Morgan alleges in the whistleblower lawsuit that LMPD Lt. Colonel Kenton Buckner cursed him out in a voicemail for sharing information with the Innocence Project. Morgan further alleged that Buckner said the non-profit group was on the “other side” and ordered the detective to stop sharing information.
In a court deposition, Buckner said he did ask Morgan about the Innocence Project’s involvement but did not recall cursing at the detective.
“If I did leave something like that, it was in a joking manner,” he said.
When reporters first raised questions in July 2012 about the KSP’s handling of the Breeden murder, the media inquiry made it up the chain of command.
Brewer immediately contacted Conrad, saying: “Steve–Just an FYI. Call me when you can.”
Five days later, the headline “KSP, LMPD wrestle over confession in 1998 slaying” appeared in The Courier-Journal.
“Conrad’s lost some weight,” KSP Commissioner Brewer wrote in a July 24, 2012 e-mail. “I think I could out-wrestle him now.”
“‘Can’t we all just get along?’” Conrad replied the following morning.
In his deposition, Conrad called the communication between him and Brewer “embarrassing and inappropriate.”
The whistleblower lawsuit alleges that from the beginning Conrad was not happy with Morgan’s communication with the Innocence Project and that he was initially upset with the detective’s actions.
In his court deposition, Conrad said Morgan had “technically violated” LMPD policy by not contacting the proper chain of command.
The personal relationship between the state’s two top cops and how it possibly influenced LMPD’s reaction to the case is of particular interest to Thomas Clay, the attorney who represents Pearson and Morgan in the whistleblower case.
“The relationship between Commissioner Brewer and Chief Conrad certainly is a concern,” he said. “They continue to have a close, personal relationship over the tenure of their careers and according to the testimony they socialize on a monthly basis, so to me that is an issue that we certainly intend to bring into trial.”
LMPD declined to make Conrad available for comment, saying the department does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Four months after taking Jarrell’s confession to his bosses and the Innocence Project, Morgan was transferred out of the narcotics unit.
Morgan had applied for a coveted spot in Conrad’s new VIPER Unit that year, but he was denied despite being a 20-year veteran who had received commendations from the current chief and his predecessor.
Former Metro Police Chief Robert White praised Morgan in a November 2011 letter for seizing over 30 pounds of cocaine and a firearm.
A month before Jarrell’s confession, Conrad had also applauded Morgan in an April 2012 letter for a cocaine seizure worth half a million dollars in addition to more than $43,000 in cash.
Morgan is now a patrol officer as part of the departments reorganization, and has been assigned to a so-called graveyard shift. He currently makes about $15,000 less annually due to a loss of overtime and court pay.
“Barron Morgan and Lt. Richard Pearson did the right thing by exposing the fact that an innocent woman was in prison for a crime she didn’t commit—a murder,” Clay said. “Rather than being praised and encouraged in their efforts to bring out the truth they were retaliated against and treated in a manner which in my opinion is truly despicable.”
Jarrell, who is now 36 and has allegedly alluded to knowledge of multiple murderers, is up for parole in February 2015.
In the meantime, attorney Linda Smith of the Innocence Project said she is still seeking a new trial for Susan Jean King, and has filed a federal suit to that end.
King isn’t looking for money, Smith said, but wants to be exonerated of the charges and to live “a quiet life.”