RILEY | My most memorable criminal justice stories from 2015
A video of an inmate's death in restraints. Police resigning while under investigation and going to another department. No investigation into allegations of harassment by a deputy. Interview of inmate possibly wrongfully convicted 28 years ago. A judge dismissing jury panels based on race.
LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – People like lists.
So says Eric Crawford, who is one of my favorite content creators.
Not to be outdone by Eric and Toni Konz, who outdo me on a daily basis, I present my first (NOT ANNUAL) most memorable "stories of the year" list.
These are not necessarily the most popular web stories -- the rape allegations against Chris Jones and anything mentioning Katina Powell were almost guaranteed to bring in the most clicks on any given day -- but they are the ones I remember the most at the end of a busy year.
I had kicked this story around for a few years, as it was not much of a secret around the courthouse that officers who had found themselves in trouble with the Louisville Metro Police Department could often get a second chance at smaller departments. The most interesting angle, to me, was that those officers who left while LMPD was investigating them could show up to testify in court or work for another department without any blemish on their record. Reporter Emily Mieure and I really began digging into the story after the Stanley Dishon murder conviction in Bullitt County. The lead investigator, Lynn Hunt, had left LMPD while under investigation for falsifying her time slip and lying about when she was at work, among other allegations. But LMPD didn't tell the Bullitt County Sheriff's Department about the investigation and the information was never shared with Dishon's defense attorneys, though experts argued it should have been.
We ended up looking at dozens of these cases and raising the issue of whether other police departments and defense attorneys should know about the incomplete investigations. Should the investigations be completed even if an officer resigns? In the months since I wrote the story, two of the former LMPD officers mentioned, including Hunt, have been fired and are now facing criminal charges. Other officers have been added to a directory which prosecutors can check to see if officers who might testify in a case have potential credibility issues.
This story came out of a piece we did on solitary confinement in Kentucky jails and prisons. While reporting that, I got a tip to check out a lawsuit in Oldham County filed by the family of a 30-year-old who died after being strapped face down in the Kentucky State Reformatory, his hands cuffed behind his back and ankles.
But there were little details in the lawsuit, besides the basics and an agreed order that a prison video of the "five-point restraints" used on the inmate and other records not be made available in court records.
It turned out, however, that there had also been a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed by a nurse present when Steven Lee McStoots died. In her lawsuit, in which she claimed she was fired for speaking about mistakes made in the death, were thousands of documents, including an internal investigation, a state police investigation and interviews with prison employees.
In addition, the Kentucky Department of Protection and Public Advocacy, which represents indigent and mentally ill inmates, presented a report of its findings to the state Department of Corrections as Mieure and I were investigating the story.
The biggest break came when we managed to get a copy of the prison video, which allowed us to tell and show exactly what happened to McStoots in the 40 minutes before he died.
This was a story that neither side really wanted to talk about when we first approached them after reporter Marcus Green and I got a tip.
The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department basically denied any knowledge of the judge's complaints about Major Gerald Bates, even though the judge had her attorney write the sheriff a letter and claimed to have met with him personally.
WDRB even obtained inappropriate e-mails and pictures Bates had sent from his work computer to Judge Stephanie Burke and deputies under his command.
The department said the materials could have been received by the department's second-in-command, who committed suicide in 2014.
Thomas Clay, an attorney who represented Judge Burke during the time she claimed to have problems with Bates, lashed out at the department's response to the story, saying the command staff did have knowledge of the complaints and Sheriff John Aubrey promised to take action.
As far as we know, Aubrey never took any action.
Bates told WDRB he didn't remember sending the e-mail but said he sometimes leaves his email account at work open, so someone else could have sent them.
This was one of the most popular stories of the year on WDRB.com -- below, of course, anything related to drones. It was helped along, in part, by The Drudge Report, and other national media outlets that picked it up.
The story, which I reported with WDRB's Danielle Lama, showed that Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens dismissed a jury panel in October because there were not enough black citizens to end up with a representative jury. And it was the first story to note that, after Stevens had dismissed an all-white jury a year earlier, the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's Office asked the state Supreme Court to decide whether Stevens had that authority.
Stevens said the WDRB story was the first he had heard about the request by prosecutors to the Supreme Court. And he soon lashed out at Commonwealth's Attorney Tom Wine on Facebook, saying the top prosecutor wanted “all-white” juries and would go down in "infamy."
Wine's call to remove Stevens from criminal cases for bias has brought protests and national attention. And it is still going on, with Stevens canceling his docket in recent weeks while the state's Judicial Conduct Commission investigates his actions in talking about Wine.
For anyone who has watched "Making a Murderer" on Netflix, this case will sound somewhat familiar. Convicted in 1988 for the brutal rape and murder of Retha Welch, a Veterans Administration nurse in Newport, William "Ricky" Virgil has consistently maintained his innocence.
And now, using technology not around in the 1980s, the Kentucky Innocence Project claims recent DNA testing on hairs, blood and semen exonerates Virgil.
This story was interesting to me, in part, because Virgil was willing to talk with us in a prison interview, without his attorneys present and without any limitation on what we could ask. And he was a good quote.
"It's a little bit short of madness to be incarcerated knowing you haven't committed a crime," Virgil told reporter Gilbert Corsey and me at one point.
By the end of the year, Virgil has been released on bond, his first time being outside prison in 28 years. But prosecutors say they will try Virgil again, saying the DNA evidence doesn't exonerate him, just proves another person was there too.
Virgil will be back in court in March. We'll be there.
Thanks for reading along this year.
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