A handicapped woman, allegations of police misconduct, and a twelve year quest for justice. It reads like a true crime novel and for BGD’s Lauren Nichols, an attorney in the Litigation Department, it made for a memorable first case.
In October 1998, Kyle Breeden’s body was pulled out of the Kentucky River and his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Susan Jean King, was called in for questioning. King had lost one of her legs in an accident years before Breeden’s death, and police eventually dismissed her as a suspect. The case went cold for almost seven years, until Kentucky State Police Det. Todd Harwood picked up the case in late 2006. Six months later King was indicted for murder and tampering with physical evidence.
King entered an Alford plea, a claim of neither guilt nor innocence, and received a 10-year sentence for second-degree manslaughter with the possibility of parole. After sentencing, her parole was unexpectedly denied and if not for the intervention of a detective from the Louisville Metro Police Department five years later, King could still be in prison.
We sat down with Lauren to learn more about the case that left such a mark on her.
- Tell us about how you became involved with the case?
During my last year of law school, I participated in the Innocence Project externship. Ms. King had appealed to the Innocence Project for assistance, and I was assigned her case. My task was to review Ms. King’s claim of innocence, reinvestigate the evidence, and determine if the Innocence Project would assist her in overturning her conviction. I spent hundreds of hours that year re-investigating Ms. King’s file and determined that the evidence did not match. I truly believed Ms. King was innocent. However, the confession did not exist yet, so at that time there was no new evidence as required under Kentucky law to overturn a conviction. Then, during my first year at BGD, I received the call that someone had confessed to the crime. I volunteered pro-bono to assist the Innocence Project in using the confession tape to clear Ms. King’s name.
- What does “pro-bono” mean?
Pro-bono work is providing legal services without a fee to either: (1) individuals who are without the financial ability to pay for counsel or (2) organizations who assist such citizens.
- What were your first impressions of Ms. King and how did you feel about your chances in overturning her sentence?
After my review and re-investigation of the evidence, I truly believed that Ms. King did not murder Mr. Breeden. There was no direct evidence to link her to the murder, and the circumstantial evidence was very suspect. However, while I believed Ms. King’s claim of innocence, I also recognized that without new evidence, it would be very difficult to overturn the Alford plea. I was overjoyed when I learned of the confession and felt strongly that we would be able to use it to clear Ms. King’s name.
- Where has the case gone since Ms. King was exonerated? Has she been able to move on?
Unfortunately, it took quite a while for Ms. King to actually be released after we filed the CR 60.02 motion (nearly two years). The state trial court agreed that the new evidence demonstrated that there was a “substantial certainty” of Ms. King’s innocence. However, the trial court did not believe that Kentucky law provided a mechanism to overturn an Alford plea.
We appealed the case to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, who ultimately ruled that Ms. King is entitled to relief. Specifically, the court held that “[i]t is self-evidence that a conviction of an innocence person offends social norms of justice and the laws embodied in our Constitution. 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. When a person convicted of a crime by jury trial or guilty plea can demonstrate actual innocence with newly discovered evidence, it is constitutionally incumbent upon the state to provide a post-conviction procedure to vacate the judgement and grant a new trial.”
Ms. King was released from prison after the Court of Appeals’ ruling. Most of her assets were lost while she was incarcerated (her home was foreclosed upon, etc.), and Kentucky does not provide any sort of compensation to those who are wrongfully accused. Since being released, Ms. King has begun re-building her life and is thrilled to have officially cleared her name.
- As a Litigation attorney, criminal defense isn’t your typical case. Have you handled any other cases like hers? Why are you passionate about doing pro-bono work?
No, Ms. King’s case was my first and only foray into criminal defense work. However, I am proud and honored to have been able to use my legal services to ensure that justice is served for the innocent. While Ms. King is my only criminal pro-bono client, I do continually assist other local non-profit organizations pro-bono. It is important to me to give back to our community and to help people navigate our legal system.