Louisville man given beer by arson investigators files federal w - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Louisville man given beer by arson investigators files federal wrongful conviction lawsuit

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A Louisville man whose 2010 arson conviction was thrown out by a judge last year because jurors never heard that investigators gave him alcohol on the day he confessed has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and several of the investigators involved.

Last March, Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens vacated U.B. 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 was released from prison after serving about eight years, but prosecutors plan to take his case to trial again.

On Friday, attorney Aaron Bentley, who represents Thomas, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Louisville, alleging Louisville Metro Arson Squad investigators “coerced” a guilty plea out of Thomas by providing him alcohol and giving him access to pain pills.

The lawsuit also claims investigators bought Thomas’ girlfriend alcohol in exchange for her testimony, though she denied Thomas had any role in the fires.

During Thomas’ interrogation, the first two hours were not recorded, and several times he accessed a duffel bag he had with him containing narcotics, according to the suit.

After initially denying any involvement in the fires, former Major Henry Ott, chief of investigations for the Louisville Metro Arson Squad at the time, provided Thomas with a 40-ounce beer despite knowing he was “an alcohol and drug addict,” the suit claims.

“After Thomas drank the malt liquor and ingested the narcotic pain medication, he gave false statements implicating himself in setting the fires,” according to the suit. An investigation into the incident was hidden from Thomas’ trial attorney, the suit claims.

The lawsuit names Ott, fire Chief Gregory Frederick and others in the squad as plaintiffs.

The city does not comment on pending litigation.

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 2016, Ott 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."

Thomas' attorney at the time of the trial failed to raise the issue, an error that likely "altered the outcome of the trial," Stevens ruled last year

"This is such an unusual and shocking development that it was bound to have impact upon the jury," Stevens ruled. 

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.

After being given alcohol and taking pills -- and having investigators threaten to charge Compton with the crimes -- Thomas told investigators 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.

The lawsuit accuses investigators of withholding this investigation from Thomas’ trial attorney.

“Defendant’s conduct was so oppressive that it shocks the conscience,” Bentley wrote in the suit.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a jury trial.

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