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By Andrew Wolfson
After an 18-year fight, Virginia Gaither has finally won justice for her grandson, a special education student who was tortured and murdered after Kentucky State Police used him to make a drug buy despite his identity being compromised.
In a unanimous opinion, the Kentucky Supreme Court Thursday reinstated most of a $168,729 award to her that had been thrown out by lower courts.
Justice Daniel Venters, writing for the court, said that in "what might be fairly described as the height of imprudence," Detective Danny Burton and other detectives decided to use 18-year-old LeBron Gaither to make another buy on July 17, 1996, after he appeared as a witness before two grand juries and his cover was blown.
Although the state is immune from liability for discretionary acts by police and other employees, the court said in a 6-0 opinion that it is well-known in law enforcement circles that a compromised informant must not be exposed to the danger of a buy-bust operation.
Virginia Gaither, of Lebanon, who raised LeBron, said she was overwhelmed with joy when she heard about the news in a call from a reporter.
"It took a long, long time," she said.
The family's lawyer, 86-year-old Dan Taylor, said, "God is good." He is retired and Gaither's case was his last one.
State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Webb said he hadn't read the opinion and had no comment.
The decision to use LeBron Gaither as an informant after he was exposed had been condemned in earlier court proceedings.
A judge said the detectives in effect had sentenced the teenager "to death," while an expert witness, a former prosecutor, said that using him for the buy after his identity was compromised was the "most reckless, stupid and idiotic idea" he'd ever heard of.
But a Franklin Circuit Court judge threw out the award, saying the state was immune for the detectives' conduct, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed the decision in 2012.
According to the Supreme Court's summary, Gaither was a 17-year-old high school student facing assault charges at school when he agreed to work as an informant to reduce his sentence and earn some money.
Under state police protocols, he shouldn't have been used at that age without permission of his guardian, which KSP didn't have.
After he turned 18, state police used him to make additional buys over six months, and Burton then walked him through courthouses in Taylor and Marion counties to testify against the suspects.
One of them was alleged drug dealer Jason Derek Noel, who was acquainted with one of the grand jurors, a woman who immediately disclosed to him that Gaither was an informant.
Despite knowing his identity was likely compromised after he'd been paraded through two courthouses full of criminal defendants — the detectives used him the very next day to make a buy from Noel.
The buy went wrong and Noel kidnapped Gaither and drove him to a house, leaving Gaither in the car. But even though police had followed the car, they didn't intercede, hoping to salvage the operation.
They followed the car again later but lost it, and rather than immediately calling in other police to help with the search, they initially combed the area on their own.
Gaither was taken to adjoining Casey County, where he was tortured and killed. Noel was later convicted of murder and sentenced to life with parole after 25 years, a term he is still serving. The grand juror was convicted of wanton endangerment.
The Supreme Court said that while the detectives couldn't have known a grand juror would tip off Noel, "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."
Because Virginia Gaither's case was against the state, she had to pursue it in the Board of Claims, which, unlike a jury, can award only up to $200,000.
State police argued that the board's award was too high, based on its degree of fault, and the Supreme Court reduced it about $20,000 to $148,787.
Editor’s note: Reprinted with permission of The Courier-Journal.