LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The family of a teenager who was killed while working as a state police informant has been awarded $148,787 by the Kentucky Supreme Court, which on Thursday upheld damages from the state, but lowered the amount.
The high court found that Kentucky State Police detectives made inexcusable mistakes in their handling of 17-year-old LeBron Gaither in the hours and days leading up to his death in July 1996.
Gaither was killed on a drive between Nelson and Taylor counties while trying to execute a drug buy that would lead to an arrest. Troopers lost track of the car he was riding in. Police later found Gaither's body in Casey County. He had been tortured, stabbed, beaten, dragged and killed by 38-year-old Jason Noel.
The case centered on how much liability police have when an informant is killed. It is an issue that has bounced around state and federal courts across the country for years without a clear determination about whether a law enforcement officer can be held responsible.
The Kentucky Board of Claims awarded Gaither's family $168,000. A trial court overturned that decision and the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed. The high court's decision reversed the Court of Appeals and sent the case back to the Board of Claims with directions to award the lower amount.
"The criminal action of Noel was a known risk and a foreseeable consequence of using Gaither in a buy/bust operation against Noel after Gaither's anonymity had been compromised," Justice Daniel Venters wrote for a unanimous court.
Gaither was a special education student when he started working as an informant, a position he held for about six months before he died, earning roughly $3,100 for his services.
He testified before a Marion County grand jury early and was taken through the public hallways and out a public exit to the Taylor County grand jury on July 16, 1996. There he testified against Noel, who was later indicted on a drug charge and sentenced to life in prison for Gaither's death.
That evening, a grand juror named Mary Ann Esarey called Noel and tipped him off to Gaither's role in the case.
The next day, officers put a radio transmitter on Gaither and sent him to purchase drugs from Noel with a plan to arrest him after the purchase at a grocery store lot in Campbellsville.
Gaither got into Noel's car and officers did not hear him utter a pre-arranged signal to make an arrest. The officers lost track of the car and did not immediately call for help as Noel drove Gaither to Casey County, where he was killed.
"Even though the officers could not have known that Esarey would tip-off Noel about Gaither's undercover work, they could not have failed to know, after their open and obvious association with Gaither escorting him through the two courthouses and his appearances under his real name before two grand juries, that his identity as an informant was no longer confidential among the criminal element in each county," Venter wrote.
Venters also concluded that the Board of Claims initially awarded Gaither's family too much money based on the teen's lost earnings. That's why the court lowered the amount awarded to the family, Venters wrote.
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