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A circuit judge commended former Louisville Metro Police Detective Barron Morgan for acting “with integrity and in the interests of justice” by swiftly informing the Kentucky Innocence Project that a man had confessed to a murder for which one of its clients was serving 10 years in prison.
But internal emails show that Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad and other commanders were anything but pleased last May when they found out what Morgan had done.
Although Morgan was not disciplined, his attorney says he intends to file a whistle-blower lawsuit against the department this week that will allege his client was punished by being transferred from detective to a graveyard patrol shift.
The transfer “made me sick,” said Linda Smith, director of the Kentucky Innocence Project, which cited Richard Thomas Jarrell Jr.’s confession in an unsuccessful motion for a new trial for Susan Jean King, a Spencer County woman convicted in the shooting death of Kyle “Deanie” Breeden 14 years ago.
A Spencer County judge denied King’s motion last week on the grounds that she had originally pleaded guilty and that the standards for winning a new trial based on newly discovered evidence didn’t apply.
In an interview, Conrad denied that Morgan’s transfer last month was punitive and said it came as part of a massive department reorganization announced last month.
Still, documents reviewed by The 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.”
In an interview this week, Conrad said the emails represented his “initial reaction to the situation” and that he later determined that the detective’s “motivations were well intended” and he was “essentially trying to do the right thing.”
“I wish he had handled it differently, but I don’t think he intentionally violated anything,” Conrad said.
He said Morgan should have “taken this situation up his chain of command.” But according to testimony in July at a two-day hearing on King’s motion for a new trial, Morgan sought and obtained the permission of his supervisor, Lt. Richard Pearson, to pass on Jarrell’s confession to the Innocence Project.
While overruling King’s motion last week on legal grounds, Spencer Circuit Judge Charles Hickman commended Morgan and said he shared the information only after consulting his supervisor and the Jefferson County commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
Morgan was transferred from the narcotics unit Sept. 18, switched from detective to patrol and assigned to the graveyard shift as part of a massive reorganization in which 38 officers were moved to new posts, including 10 who were taken out of narcotics.
Morgan was one of 11 officers transferred because of the “needs of the department,” records show. Another 11 were promoted, and 16 transferred voluntarily.
Conrad said Morgan’s transfer had “absolutely nothing” to do with his involvement in King’s case.
But Morgan’s attorney, Clay, alleged he was punished for providing information to the Innocence Project, in violation of whistle-blower protection laws.
“Detective Morgan had every right — and even a duty — to do what he did,” Clay said in an interview.
He said Morgan was the most productive detective in narcotics and had more seniority than others who were allowed to stay. Clay said the transfer will cost Morgan tens of thousands of dollars a year in overtime court pay, and already forced him to quit two part-time jobs because of scheduling conflicts.
Morgan’s personnel file shows that he has been commended by three police chiefs.
In an April 19 letter, Conrad praised him for “dedication and teamwork” that resulted in seizure of more than 25 pounds of cocaine worth about $500,000 and $85,000 in cash. “Through your work ethics and professionalism you have made a positive image for yourself and the department,” Conrad wrote. “Keep up the excellent work.”
Morgan also was commended by then-Chief Robert White on Nov. 30, 2011, for “outstanding performance and excellent investigative skills” that resulted in the seizure of more than 30 pounds of cocaine, a .45-caliber handgun, $43,600 and two vehicles.
Morgan also received several commendations on the old county police force from Chief Ron Ricucci.
‘Can of worms’
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.”
Conrad said the department ordered Morgan to appear in court only if he was subpoenaed.
The conflict arose from the death of Breeden, whose body was found in the Kentucky River in 1998. The case went unsolved for eight years until KSP Detective Todd Harwood picked it up as a cold case and in three weeks identified King as the chief suspect.
King entered an Alford plea to manslaughter in 2008 and accepted a 10-year sentence that left her eligible for parole in two years. She has said she feared that if she had gone to trial, she could have been sentenced to life in prison if convicted of murder.
The Innocence Project began investigating her case because of concerns that it would have been physically impossible for her to have dumped Breeden’s body off a bridge into the river — she weighed 97 pounds at the time of the homicide and has only one leg.
Then in May, after Jarrell was arrested in Louisville for firing a shotgun into a home, he told Morgan and others detectives that he had killed Breeden on his 21st birthday 13 years earlier and provided details about the murder.
Morgan said he contacted Smith at the Innocence Project after Harwood refused to interview Jarrell and told Louisville detectives that “we were opening a can of worms,” Morgan later told Buckner, the assistant chief, in a memo.
Morgan said that, when he re-interviewed Jarrell the next week, he 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.
Medley interviewed Jarrell again and he recanted his confession, saying he falsely claimed to have killed Breeden to try to win leniency for his brother, who was arrested last fall in Arkansas and charged with trafficking in almost 50 pounds of cocaine.
Hickman said in his ruling that he couldn’t determine if Jarrell was telling the truth when he admitted to the murder or when he denied it. The judge said Jarrell was able to provide a “startling level of details” about the crime, but there also were inconsistencies in his story.