A Little Sandy Detention Center inmate who has served 40 years for the murder of a Lexington cab driver might have a chance at exoneration after a decision by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government to release his police file under the Kentucky Open Records act.
Raymond Jenkins was sentenced to life in prison in 1971 after pleading guilty to shooting a cab driver and stealing $49 from him. Jenkins was 18 and an admitted drug addict when he allegedly shot Robert Brittingham with a .22-caliber pistol on July 4, 1970.
Forty years later, he says he didn't do it, and the Kentucky Innocence Project — a federally financed group that has exonerated 10 wrongfully convicted Kentuckians — has taken interest in investigating his claim.
But the investigation could not begin without the criminal case file compiled by the Lexington police department — a file that the city has successfully fought for months to withhold.
Despite an attorney general's decision and a Fayette Circuit Court judge's ruling that the city was not obligated to release the file, the city decided Friday to turn it over to the Kentucky Innocence Project.
"When public policy is best served by transparency and opening records to the public, we will follow that path, even when it's not required by court opinions," city spokeswoman Susan Straub said. "That is what we have done in this case, even though we have a court opinion stating we do not have to provide these records. The open records law allows us that flexibility."
The court battle began last year, when the Kentucky Innocence Project appealed Lexington police's refusal to release the records.
Police initially said the records were exempt from inspection because the case is not closed until Jenkins completes his life sentence, according to court documents.
That was the same reason police denied the Herald-Leader the investigative file of former state lawmaker Steve Nunn last month. Days later, the city's law department reversed that decision and released portions of Nunn's file "in order to promote government transparency," according to Law Commissioner Janet Graham.
On Friday, the Kentucky Innocence Project filed a new motion in the court case, questioning why the city allowed Nunn's files to be released when Jenkins' were withheld.
Later Friday, the city filed a response saying that Jenkins' file would be released.
Linda Smith, supervising attorney for the Kentucky Innocence Project, said she received the file Monday. She said she couldn't comment about the file's specifics pending a court hearing in the case.
Even with the file, Smith said, there is no guarantee attorneys will represent Jenkins. Smith said Jenkins' case is in the "review phase." The Kentucky Innocence Project takes up only a fraction of the requests for assistance it reviews, she said.
"If they're not viable cases, we don't pursue them," she said.
The case file is often the earliest step in determining viability. The files might point to physical evidence that might have traces of the shooter's DNA or fingerprints.
The city said in court filings that no physical evidence still exists in Jenkins' case. But Smith said evidence is occasionally lost or misplaced, and reading the file is the first step to finding it.
"The systems for evidence storage are very ill-defined in Kentucky, and it depends on the jurisdiction how the evidence is stored," Smith said. "There's nothing that makes it uniform."
Smith cited a 20-year-old rape case in Campbell County in which police recently said no physical evidence existed. A Campbell Circuit Court clerk later found the evidence in an attic in the courthouse.
At least some of the physical evidence in Jenkins' case is now in the possession of Robert Brittingham's family.
Eleanor Brittingham, the victim's daughter, said her sister Peggy has the clothes her father was wearing when he was shot, including items the shooter might have touched.
"If there was DNA on any of his clothes, it would be his belt or his wallet," she said, adding that the shooter "ripped his belt off his waist."
Eleanor Brittingham said she isn't sure whether the family would be willing to provide the items to the Kentucky Innocence Project. She said the family continues to struggle with her father's death.
She described her father as a strict man and a hard worker. Robert Brittingham held many jobs to provide for his family, she said. He grew tobacco, owned a golf course and worked for a beer distributor before taking a job with the Yellow Cab taxi company.
Robert Brittingham's son Larry Brittingham said his father was shot by a passenger he had taken to railroad tracks near Patterson Street. His father then drove to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he survived for 16 days. Doctors were unable to remove the bullet, and he ultimately died of lead poisoning, he said.
Robert Brittingham's adult children said they were surprised to learn Jenkins was still in prison. The last they heard, he had been paroled.
Lisa Lamb, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections, confirmed that Jenkins has been paroled three times. He was first paroled in 1979, but he was brought back to prison in Kentucky after serving three years for assault in Virginia. He was again paroled in 1990 and 1998 but returned on technical violations, such as failing to report to his parole officer or testing positive for drugs.
Another parole hearing is scheduled for Aug. 1, 2012, she said.