When LeBron Gaither was last seen alive, he had just gotten into a car in Taylorsville for a drug buy in July 1996, unaware that someone tipped off his dealer, Jason Noel, to his role as a police informant.
Police later found Gaither's body in Casey County. He had been tortured, stabbed, beaten, dragged and killed.
Now, the Kentucky Supreme Court is giving Gaither's mother, Virginia Gaither, a chance to argue why she should be compensated for her son's death. The high court on Thursday agreed to take up the family's case, but did not give a reason why in the single-line order. The case is likely to be heard sometime in 2013. Initial briefs are due from the plaintiffs in 60 days.
The Kentucky Board of Claims awarded Gaither's family $168,000, but a Franklin Circuit judge overturned that decision in 2011. The Kentucky Court of Appeals in May also rejected the award. Gaither family attorney Dan Taylor said the high court appears interested in what responsibility Kentucky State Police have when they employ a confidential informant.
"In this situation, by their own actions, they have put an informer's life at risk," Taylor told The Associated Press.
The issue of police liability in the death of informants 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. Taylor said this case may settle the issue in Kentucky.
The Kentucky Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision in May, ruled that how the detectives handled Gaither is protected by governmental immunity, which means the state cannot be sued.
Gaither was a 17-year-old special education student when detectives first approached him, court records say. He became a police informant after turning 18 in exchange for more than $3,000.
Gaither testified before a Marion County grand jury early in the day, 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.
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, detectives reunited Gaither and Noel for another controlled drug buy. Gaither wore a microphone and electronic transmitter so officers could monitor the purchase and gave instructions for Gaither not to get in Noel's car.
Despite the warning, Gaither got into the car with Noel as detectives followed. They lost track of the car a few minutes later and could not find him. Troopers later stopped Noel, who was alone in the car, and charged him with torturing and killing Gaither.
"It was gross negligence on their part," Taylor said.
Noel, 36, would be convicted of murder. He is serving a life sentence at Northpoint Training Center in Burgin. Esarey was convicted of wanton endangerment, complicity to retaliating against a witness and perjury.
Virginia Gaither filed a claim with the state. The Kentucky Board of Claims determined in 2009 that the state was 30 percent liable for Gaither's death and awarded $168,729.
The Board of Claims concluded that by exposing Gaither in the public hallways of two courthouses and giving his name to grand jurors, detectives should not have used him again for drug buys because dealers would learn of his identity.
Franklin Circuit Judge Thomas Wingate ruled in 2011 that the actions of the detectives weren't subject to claims of negligence.