Louisville judge tosses conviction of man given beer by arson investigators
"This is such an unusual and shocking development that it was bound to have impact upon the jury," Judge Olu Stevens ruled.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Seven years after a jury sent U.B. Thomas to prison for arson, a judge has thrown out the conviction and ordered a new trial because jurors never heard that investigators gave Thomas alcohol on the day he confessed.
On Friday, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens vacated Thomas' conviction and 20-year-prison sentence, ruling jurors in the 2010 trial should have been told that Thomas was provided beer by Louisville arson investigators, calling it a "significant development which creates a wide range of inferences about the circumstances" of the confession.
Thomas' attorney at the time failed to raise the issue, an error that likely "altered the outcome of the trial," Stevens ruled.
"This is such an unusual and shocking development that it was bound to have impact upon the jury," Stevens said.
Krista Dolan, an attorney with the Kentucky Department of Advocacy who is representing Thomas, said the ruling "vindicates" him.
"Since his ...conviction, he has told anyone who would listen that he is innocent and falsely confessed only after the police fed him alcohol," she said in an email. "False confessions are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, and the drug and alcohol dependent Thomas was particularly vulnerable to falsely confess under these circumstances."
Thomas has consistently claimed he was given alcohol during his confession and allowed to take prescription drugs from a bag he had with him.
Investigators acknowledge Thomas was given beer, but only after he had confessed.
In a court hearing in November, former Major Henry Ott, chief of investigations for the Louisville Metro Arson Squad at the time, admitted investigators bought a beer for Thomas' girlfriend to get her to come to the police station and give a statement.
They then gave Thomas the rest of the 40-ounce beer, but Ott said it was not part of any plot to coerce Thomas to confess. Ott has said it was an act of kindness for a man who was likely going to prison.
"I gave the man a beer," Ott told investigators during a 2009 criminal investigation by Louisville Metro Police. "I shouldn't have done it. I won't do it again."
Dolan argued it didn't matter when the beer was given to Thomas, whom she describes as an addict who would have said anything to get alcohol.
Jane Tyler, Thomas' trial attorney, did not bring up the alcohol consumption in front of jurors during the trial, in part, because several investigators were prepared to testify that Thomas confessed before being given beer, according to Stevens' ruling.
But Stevens ruled that the issue "would have substantially impacted the outcome of the trial," leading jurors to question how much alcohol was provided and when.
In the early morning hours of May 3, 2009, fires were set in rooming houses on West Hill, East St. Catherine, Rowan and Duncan streets. Thomas and his then-girlfriend, Colleen "Pebbles" Compton, lived in one of the homes and were soon picked up by arson investigators.
Ott admitted investigators bought alcohol for Compton in exchange for her speaking to investigators.
For the first 30-45 minutes he was with arson investigators, Thomas said he denied having any involvement in the fires. After being given alcohol and taking pills -- and having investigators threaten to charge Compton with the crimes -- Thomas says the camera was turned on and he gave a "false" confession.
"You don't put a steak in front of a dog and ask him not to bite at it when he’s hungry," Thomas told police in the LMPD investigator of arson investigators. "You don't do that to people, especially when you know the kind of situation that they're in and the things they're doing, the habits they have."
While in prison, Thomas wrote to the chiefs of both the fire and police departments, complaining that he had been given alcohol and access to medications during his interrogation.
These letters initiated a criminal investigation by the police department's Public Integrity Unit. The department interviewed everyone involved and confirmed that both Compton and Thomas were given alcohol, but recommended that no charges be filed against investigators, because they swore the alcohol was given after the confession.
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