LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — A Kentucky woman who has battled to be cleared of killing her boyfriend 16 years ago on Friday won a new trial based on the statements a man made to police.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals concluded that 54-year-old Susan Jean King presented valid, newly discovered evidence in the death of 40-year-old Kyle "Deanie" Breeden in Spencer County in October 1998. The ruling overturns a Spencer County judge's decision to let stand King's plea to manslaughter.
Richard Thomas Jarrell Jr., 35, a felon and diagnosed schizophrenic, in 2012 admitted to killing Breeden in what one judge described as "a startling level of detailed facts." Jarrell later recanted his statement. He has not been charged with Breeden's killing.
Breeden last had contact with his family in Shelbyville on Oct. 26, 1998 and the family reported him missing three days later.
Two fishermen found the missing man's body floating in a stretch of the Kentucky between Gratz and Lockport — about 45 miles from King's home. He had been shot twice in the head and his feet were bound by a guitar amplifier cord.
Judge Glenn Acree, writing for a three-judge panel, said when someone can demonstrate "actual innocence" with newly discovered evidence, it is "constitutionally incumbent" for the state to provide a way to vacate the guilty judgment and grant a new trial.
"It is self-evident that the conviction of an innocent person offends both social norms of justice and the laws embodied in our Constitution," Acree wrote, joined by judges Jeff S. Taylor and Laurance VanMeter. "In a society whose foundations were built upon the guarantee of justice to every citizen, the conviction of an innocent person represents a serious and egregious violation of such guarantee."
Linda Smith, the supervising attorney for the Kentucky Innocence Project, which represented King, said the court saw evidence of her innocence was "overwhelming."
"This is a great victory for Susan, her family and the Kentucky criminal justice system," Smith said. "We are overjoyed, grateful and looking forward to her complete exoneration."
It was not immediately clear if King would be retried. David Nutgrass, an assistant Spencer County Commonwealth Attorney, said the opinion was being evaluated and prosecutors wanted to speak with Breeden's family before making any comment.
Much of Acree's decision focused on the details of Jarrell's statements as well as King's claim that it would have been physically impossible for her to kill Breeden and dump him in the river. King, who has one leg, weighed just less than 100 pounds at the time, while Breeden weighed about 187 pounds.
After being arrested in May 2012 in an unrelated case and charged with shooting at a confidential informant, Jarrell told Louisville police he picked up Breeden on Oct. 26, 1998 and planned on getting some money and taking drugs with him.
Jarrell told officers he took Breeden to an abandoned House in Henry County, where he shot Breeden in the head before tying up his hands and feet with guitar amplifier cord and dumping the body in the Kentucky River.
The investigation into Breeden's death went dormant for eight years until King was charged with murder in 2006. King entered an Alford plea — not admitting guilt, but acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict her of manslaughter — in 2008. She was released from the Kentucky Correctional Institute for Women in Pewee Valley in 2012.
Jarrell later recanted his statement, telling investigators in June 2012 that he lied about killing Breeden and got information about the case on the internet.
Assistant Commonwealth Attorney David Nutgrass, in a motion filed in Spencer Circuit Court, called Jarrell's statements unreliable.
"We all know Richard Jarrell has confessed to killing Dean Breeden," Nutgrass wrote. "We also know that we are almost certainly never going to hear him say it again."
Spencer County Circuit Judge Charles Hickman turned away King's efforts in October 2012. Because King pleaded guilty, he ruled, she could not petition for a new trial.
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