Prosecutors appeal Louisville judge's ruling tossing conviction of man given beer by investigators
An attorney for U.B. Thomas has asked a judge to set a "reasonable" bond as the appeal could drag on for more than a year.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's office has appealed a judge's order that overturned a 2010 arson conviction because jurors never heard that investigators gave the man alcohol on the day he confessed.
Prosecutors have asked the Kentucky Court of Appeals to review Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens' March 3 order, in which he vacated U.B. Thomas' conviction and 20-year-prison sentence, ruling jurors should have been told that Thomas was provided beer by Louisville arson investigators.
Stevens called 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."
An attorney for Thomas has asked Stevens to set a "reasonable" bond as the appeal could drag on for more than a year.
Thomas has been incarcerated for about eight years already and is not able to pay the $25,000 bond that was set before his trial, defense attorney Euva Blandford wrote in a motion last week.
She has asked Stevens to release Thomas to a drug and alcohol recovery program while the appeal is pending.
A bond hearing has been scheduled for April 19.
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."
An attorney for Thomas argued it didn't matter when the beer was given to Thomas, whom she described 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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