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$450,000 Settlement to Whistleblower in Case of Framing

by David Reutter

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled a one-legged woman exonerated of murder can sue a Kentucky State Police (“KSP”) detective whom the woman charged framed her. In connection with her case, a Louisville Metro Police Department (“LMPD”) detective who was integral in her exoneration received a $450,000 whistleblower settlement.

Kyle Breeden was found dead on November 5, 1998. His body was found in a river 10 days after he went missing. The cause of death was from two non-exiting .22 caliber gunshot wounds to the head, meaning they were available for comparison purposes. Breeden’s legs were bound with a guitar amplifier cord.

KSP detectives were unable to identify the perpetrator. Susan King became a suspect due to her “on / off again relationship” with Breeden, and between his disappearance and his body being found, King shared with others her premonitions of “Breeden being found in water.” Detectives’ attempts to obtain a search warrant based on that information, that she had bullet holes in her home’s floor, and that she played the guitar, were unsuccessful.

The case went cold for seven years, until it was assigned to KSP Detective Todd Harwood. He interviewed King twice at her home and then obtained a search warrant, even though he did not have any new evidence. The search recovered a .22-caliber bullet from the floor in King’s home, but its “configuration” was different from the bullets that killed Breeden. A blood sample from the floor was determined to have come from a male, but the DNA was not matched to Breeden.

Harwood obtained another warrant and recovered 130 bullets from a tree used for target practice in King’s backyard. None of those bullets matched the bullets recovered from Breeden’s skull. Nevertheless, Harwood’s report to the prosecutor included “his theory that King shot Breeden in her kitchen, dragged his body out of her home, placed Breeden into her vehicle, then drove Breeden to Gratz’s bridge, and finally, removed Breeden’s body from the vehicle and threw it off the bridge.” After that, “King went home and cleared up the crime scene, including scraping away a layer of linoleum on her kitchen floor.”

At the time Harwood proffered his theory, he was aware that the physical evidence disproved every critical facet of the theory. None of the bullets recovered from King’s home matched the bullets that killed Breeden, and no cleaning solvents were identified on her floor. Additionally, during his grand jury testimony, he failed to reveal the fact that King had only one leg and no prosthetic at the time, weighed 100 pounds, and Breeden weighed 187. As the Court of Appeals observed, those facts “would make it less probable than otherwise that King killed Breeden in her kitchen” and then disposed of his body.

Hardwood’s testimony resulted in an indictment for murder and tampering with evidence. Unfortunately for King, she ended up with a lawyer who believed in her guilt. Harwood told her that he would see her receive the death penalty or a sentence of 20 years-to-life if she did not accept a plea agreement of 10 years for manslaughter and a concurrent five-year sentence for the tampering charge. On September 16, 2008, King entered an Alford plea, which is a guilty plea in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence.

On May 4, 2012, LMPD Detective Barron Morgan interviewed serial murderer Richard Jarrell, who confessed to Breeden’s murder and provided very graphic and specific details of the crime that were not publicly known. Harwood refused to attend subsequent interviews of Jarrell conducted by LMPD. Instead, he went on his own and, King alleged, intimidated Jarrell into recanting his confession. Jarrell stopped cooperating after Harwood’s visit, and Harwood’s tape recorder used during the interview mysteriously disappeared.

Morgan forwarded a copy of Jarrell’s confession to the Kentucky Innocence Project, and it filed a motion for a new trial on King’s behalf. On appeal, the matter was remanded, and the prosecution dropped charges against King on October 9, 2014. A year later, King filed a civil rights lawsuit. The district court dismissed her claims on summary judgment as time barred and that Harwood was entitled to qualified immunity.

The Sixth Circuit reversed. It held the one-year statute of limitations for a malicious prosecution claim started when the charges were dropped, not when the conviction was vacated, as the district court ruled. For the reasons detailed above, the Sixth Circuit further concluded that Harwood was not entitled to summary judgment on the issue of qualified immunity because material facts were in dispute as to whether he had probable cause to prosecute.

Finally, in connection with King’s case, Harwood’s superior, KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer, complained to LMPD chief and longtime friend, Steve Conrad, that LMPD Detective Morgan was meddling in a state police case. Conrad subsequently transferred Morgan to the graveyard shift as a patrol officer. Morgan sued, arguing that the assignment change was punishment for bringing Jarrell’s confession to light. He received a $450,000 settlement from the City of Louisville in a whistleblower lawsuit. See: King v. Harwood, 852 F.3d 568 (6th Cir. 2017). 

Additional source: www.courier-journal.com

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