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Paul Hurt

Other Kentucky Exonerations
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In February 2000, a six-year-old girl, R.F., told her stepmother that her stepfather, 25-year-old Paul Hurt, had sexually abused her. The girl said she was abused while living with her biological mother and Hurt in Louisville, Kentucky.

The girl later told investigators with Child Protective Services and also with a nonprofit that works with abused children that Hurt had orally and anally sodomized her and also made her perform a sexual act on him. At least one of the incidents, she said, took place in her bunk bed. Hurt was arrested in February 2000 and charged with three counts of first-degree sodomy and three counts of first-degree sexual abuse.

Hurt’s trial took place two years later in Jefferson County Circuit Court, with Judge Stephen Mershon presiding. There was no physical or forensic evidence tying Hurt to the alleged crime. In fact, Dr. Sally Perlman, who performed a gynecological examination on R.F., testified that she found no physical signs of abuse. But she noted that the girl had been unusually calm during Perlman’s examination. She said the girl had “laid there like a wet noodle,” and that this sort of relaxed state during an intrusive process was a sign of sexual abuse. It was a “one in a million” chance, Perlman said during cross-examination, that this behavior didn’t track with some previous sexual trauma.

R.F. testified about how Hurt had abused her during a five-month period beginning in September 1999, often during the afternoon when she was alone with him before her mother came home. Because of her age, the girl was often uncertain about many dates and details of her life. She couldn’t remember how long her family owned their dog or how long they had lived in a neighboring county. Hurt also testified, maintaining his innocence and denying any abuse of his stepdaughter.

Hurt was convicted by a jury on Dec.ember 21, 2001 on the three sodomy counts and on two of the sexual abuse counts. Mershon sentenced him on February 8, 2002 to three concurrent life sentences for the sodomy convictions and two concurrent five-year sentences on the sexual abuse convictions.

Hurt’s initial appeal asserted that R.F. wasn’t competent to testify. At the time of trial, she was eight years old, and Hurt noted her uncertainty about details. He also said that because the girl still believed in Santa Claus, she was unable to accurately perceive reality.

Separately, Hurt said that there was insufficient evidence to convict him. He said the location of the girl’s bed, the upper bunk near the ceiling, would have made it nearly impossible for him to have orally sodomized the girl while she was in the bed, as she had testified. At trial, he had moved for a directed verdict based on this argument, but Mershon denied the motion, noting that the furniture arrangement made the abuse not a factual impossibility but merely a factual improbability, and therefore below the level warranting a directed verdict.

The Kentucky Supreme Court rejected his appeal in 2003. It said that R.F. was sufficiently mature to testify, and that the sufficiency and credibility of the evidence was for the jury to decide.

Hurt tried a new approach in 2007. In a pro se court filing, he said that his trial attorney had been ineffective because the attorney had failed to secure an expert witness to testify that there was no anal scarring on R.F. The lack of scarring, Hurt said, would have refuted the girl’s testimony that he sodomized her. He also said his attorney failed to object to R.F. holding a teddy bear during her testimony. The Kentucky Supreme Court ordered a hearing on these matters. After the hearing, Hurt’s motion for a new trial was denied.

Hurt appealed again, this time with the assistance of an appellate public defender. He again claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, now asserting that his attorney had not properly prepared for Perlman’s testimony about her physical examination of R.F. Perlman had noted that the girl just lay there during the examination, behavior that Perlman considered a marker for sexual abuse. During an evidentiary hearing on Hurt’s motion for a new trial, a prominent trial attorney in Kentucky testified that Hurt’s attorney should have challenged Perlman’s expertise to make such a behavioral determination. Separately, a former chief medical examiner of Kentucky testified that Perlman’s statement that it was “one in a million” that this behavior didn’t equate to sexual abuse wasn’t backed up by any studies.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals rejected Hurt’s appeal in 2012. It found that Perlman’s testimony on the girl’s behavior should have been inadmissible because Kentucky law didn’t allow the victim’s behavior to be used as evidence of sexual abuse. Hurt’s trial attorney was deficient, the court said, for failing to object. But the court said that Hurt’s appeal was not based on the attorney’s failure to object, but rather a failure to prepare for Perlman’s testimony and adequately challenge it. And despite the problems with Perlman’s testimony, the court said it was unlikely that Hurt’s trial attorney could have changed the jury’s verdict by preparing differently.

Mershon, the trial judge, retired in 2011 after a long career on the bench, including presiding over part of the litigation between Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and Jeffrey Wigand, the basis for the movie The Insider. He was often a maverick, willing to extend leniency to first-time offenders. After his retirement, Mershon began corresponding with Hurt and became convinced of his innocence. Mershon then reached out to R.F. and helped her write a letter to then-Gov. Steve Beshear seeking a pardon or commutation for Hurt. That effort failed.

In May 2015, with Mershon’s assistance, Hurt filed a new motion for a new trial. At an evidentiary hearing, R.F. recanted her testimony that she had been sexually abused by Hurt. Despite that recantation, Judge Audra Eckerle denied Hurt’s motion in 2016. Eckerle wrote that R.F.’s “shifting accounts as of late do not give the Court confidence that her recantation was accurate. It is no more likely to be true than false, given her clear feelings of guilt about losing family relations and concerning the lengthy incarceration of someone who has been close to her. It was only brought about by the highly unusual circumstance of the formerly sitting Judge confronting her directly and privately. Even with his involvement, it took quite some time to get the Victim to say Hurt did not commit the crimes, as opposed to her earlier expressions of forgiveness of him for his unlawful abuse.”

Hurt appealed Eckerle’s order, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld her ruling in 2018, stating that recantations ought to be viewed with skepticism and that trial judges such as Eckerle are in the best position to rule on their credibility.

On November 22, 2019, Gov. Matt Bevin, who lost his bid for re-election earlier that month, commuted Hurt’s sentence and granted him a full and unconditional pardon. In his order, Bevin wrote that he was acting upon a moral duty. “Hindsight is never truly 20/20, but it appears to me, and to many others including the judge who sentenced him, that Paul Donel Hurt has been wrongly convicted and imprisoned for nearly 20 years,” the executive order read. “In light of all that is known and all that will forever remain unknown, it does not seem possible that justice can be truly served in this instance.”

Mershon picked up Hurt at the state prison in LaGrange the day of his pardon. He would later say that he believed an innocent man was now free and that the governor did the right thing. He told the Louisville Courier Journal that there was a chance that Hurt had been playing him, but if so, he “was the best con artist in the world.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/9/2019
State:Kentucky
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:Child Sex Abuse
Reported Crime Date:2000
Convicted:2001
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No