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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Inmate Outreach by Cop May Lead to Stiff Penalty

(CN) - A police chief who was disciplined after his contact with a suspect damaged a capital-murder case must face off with a grieving family member seeking justice, an appeals court ruled.

Law enforcement caught up with Justin Denson in January 2010, about a month after he used a belt to tie a plastic bag around the head of his mother, Nita, and then beat her to death with a sledgehammer.

The 33-year-old Denson had spent the next few weeks traveling the country using his mother's credit cards and money from her bank account.

A grand jury in Etowah County, Ala., indicted Denson in February 2010 for capital murder. With a trial more than two years away, District Attorney Jimmy Harp consulted with the victim's family, including her niece Joy Justus Bates, and agreed to seek the death penalty.

Nearly a year had gone by when Denson started receiving letters and visits in lockup from a friend's father, John Crane, who was a cop in Birmingham and became the chief of the Gadsen police department in March 2012.

Crane purportedly made monthly visits as a kind of "religious outreach" and exchanged more than 100 phone conversations with the prisoner.

In addition to buying Denson clothes for his trial, Crane also placed money into Denson's jail commissary account.

Harp purportedly learned of Crane's actions on jury-selection day for Denson's murder trial. Believing that the men's contact would affect his case, Harp reassessed his strategy and reached a plea agreement with Denson for a lesser charge of murder.

The plea removed the possibility that Denson would face the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole, which disappointed the victim's family. Records show that Denson's release date is not for another century, in 2116.

Bates, the victim's neice, complained about Crane's actions to the Gadsden Civil Service Board, which ruled that his actions merited a suspension of 15 days, 10 of which were held in abeyance.

Not satisfied with that punishment, Bates appealed the decision to the Etowah Circuit Court.

Though that court dismissed her appeal for lack of standing, the Alabama Civil Court of Appeals reversed on April 11.

The language of the Gadsden Civil Service Act reveals that any aggrieved party can challenge the decision of the civil service board, according to the ruling.

"The board's rules clearly contemplate that a party who files a complaint against a member of the Gadsden Police Department is entitled to appeal from a decision of the board if that party 'feels aggrieved,'" Presiding Judge William Thompson wrote for a four-member panel.

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