This week in innocence: Susan Jean King

Susan Jean King of Kentucky says she only pleaded guilty to a 1998 homicide because she was set up by a corrupt cop and wanted to avoid the risk of life in prison. Now she’s close to exoneration.

The homicide went unsolved for eight years until then-Detective Todd Harwood of the Kentucky State Police was assigned to investigate it as a cold case and concluded 18 days later that King was the perpetrator. Facing life in prison if convicted of murder, King, while maintaining her innocence, pleaded guilty in 2008 to manslaughter and accepted a 10-year sentence.

The Innocence Project began investigating after concluding it would have been physically impossible for King, who has only one leg and weighed 97 pounds at the time of the offense, to have thrown Breeden’s body off a bridge into the Kentucky River, where it was found.

Then in May 2012, while he was being interrogated by Louisville Metro Police about another crime, Richard Jarrell Jr. confessed to killing Breeden and two other homicides. Louisville narcotics Detective Barron Morgan then passed his statement to the Innocence Project.

After a two-day hearing, Spencer Circuit Judge Charles Hickman said Jarrell had offered a “startling level of details” about the homicide in his confession. But as a matter of law, Hickman said he couldn’t grant King’s motion for a new trial because she had pleaded guilty.

We frequently hear about killers and rapists who get out of prison on a “technicality.” In truth, that’s rare. But here’s another example of a likely innocent person who was kept in prison because of a legal technicality. It took another two years, but last Friday, a Kentucky appellate court finally overturned King’s conviction. She is expected to be released.

There’s one more bit to add to the story. Morgan, the cop who helped reveal King’s innocence, was subsequently punished.

He alleged he was demoted to patrol officer on the graveyard shift for trying to help King, and in April he won a $450,000 settlement from Louisville on his claim that he was punished in violation of the state whistleblower protection act.

Smith credited Morgan with bringing King to the brink of exoneration.

“Barron Morgan was absolutely the hero of this story,” she said. “Without him sticking his neck out and doing the right thing, we would not have had the information about Richard Jarrell’s confession.”

True justice would also mean firing the supervisors who demoted him.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · July 23