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Norman Graham

Other Kentucky Exonerations
At about 4:30 a.m. on June 30, 1980, the body of Kay Williams was found in Norman Graham’s mobile home in the Tiny Town Trailer Park in Todd County, Kentucky.

Graham was Williams’s boyfriend, and he told investigators with the Kentucky State Police that he found Williams when he returned home after a night of heavy drinking with his ex-wife and her friends just across the state line in Clarksville, Tennessee. Williams, who was 21, had been stabbed in the chest 25 times. Her jumpsuit had been cut and torn away, and she was found nude on the bed, with her hands and feet bound with bootlaces. An autopsy revealed the presence of semen on her jumpsuit and in her vagina. Although there was no technology available at the time to identify the source of the semen, Graham told investigators that he and Williams had had sex on the morning of June 29. After that, they had lunch with Williams’s grandmother, he said, and then Graham left Williams and went out drinking.

Graham, who was 33, had a shaky alibi for the time of Williams’s death. He said he had spent most of the evening at a bar called the Red Carpet Lounge, eventually passing out in his Oldsmobile Cutlass in the parking lot and waking up about 4 a.m. But a waitress whose shift ended at 2:30 told investigators she didn’t see his car, and his ex-wife initially said she wasn’t sure when she last saw him on the night in question.

There were no apparent eyewitnesses to the killing. Police did not find a murder weapon or bloody clothes. They examined a pocketknife Graham carried, as well as a smaller knife found near Williams’s body, but there were no blood stains on the knife and there was no indication it had been recently washed. Separate analyses by the Kentucky State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were inconclusive about whether the knives had been sharpened by the same stone.

Despite the circumstantial case, Graham was charged with murder and brought to trial in 1981. The jury could not reach a verdict, and a mistrial was declared. Although the indictment was dismissed without prejudice, meaning charges could be brought again, Graham thought he was in the clear. “My attorney said that a mistrial is like kissing your sister,” Graham told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “But at least you get a kiss.”

In 2003, the Kentucky State Police submitted the biological evidence from the case for DNA testing. The results indicated that Graham was the source of the semen found in Williams’s vagina and on her jumpsuit. While Graham had acknowledged having sex with Williams, the testing also appeared to rule out a sexual assault at the hands of another man. As the state police continued investigating, they found a key witness in Regina Alexander, who was Williams’s sister. She had been at lunch with Williams and Graham, and said that Williams had confided to her that afternoon that she was considering breaking up with Graham. In addition, Alexander said that her sister was a “neat freak,” who often took three showers a day and that she had changed clothes after lunch. That seemed to support the prosecution theory that the stain on the jumpsuit was deposited after lunch. Investigators also learned that Williams had gone looking for Graham on the night of June 29 but had been unable to find him and returned to the trailer.

After the mistrial, Graham had moved away from Kentucky, worked construction jobs, and stayed out of trouble. On January 10, 2007, he was living in Danville, Virginia and had just gotten out of the shower, when a fugitive task force kicked his door in and arrested him for the rape and murder of Kay Williams.

His second trial in Todd County Circuit Court began in October 2008. Prosecutors, led by Todd County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gail Guiling, presented evidence that Williams had gone out looking for Graham that evening but had been unable to find him. The state’s theory was that when Graham returned home, Williams smelled his ex-wife’s perfume and told Graham that they were through. Graham became enraged, cut off the jumpsuit, and brutally attacked and sexually assaulted Williams, leaving a tiny patch of semen in the jumpsuit’s crotch. Alexander’s testimony about her sister’s hygiene and dressing habits allowed the state to refute Graham’s testimony that the semen on the jumpsuit was from an earlier, consensual sexual encounter.

The police had arrived at the trailer park at 5:10 a.m., and they said they noticed dew on Graham’s car, and that the Oldsmobile’s hood was warm. A mechanic testified about how an engine cools, and the prosecution used these observations to support its contention that Graham had arrived home sooner than he told police. 

After deliberating for three hours, the Todd County jury convicted Graham on October 17, 2008 of murder and first-degree rape. He was sentenced to 40 years on each conviction, with the sentences to run concurrently.

Graham appealed his conviction. He claimed that the DNA evidence was improperly introduced; that there was an undue delay in his prosecution; that prosecutors had made an impermissible argument to the jurors when they conjured up the fight scene between Williams and Graham; and that there was juror misconduct because one of the jurors was friendly with Williams’s family. The Kentucky Supreme Court rejected his appeal in 2010.

Graham’s second appeal, filed in 2011, claimed ineffective assistance of counsel. He said his attorney should have presented testimony from two witnesses, including his ex-wife. She had told investigators in 1980 that she wasn’t sure when she had left Graham at the bar in Clarksville, but in 2008 she had revised her story to say it was after 3 a.m. In addition, Graham said his attorney should have hired a “dew expert” to challenge the state’s assertion that dew on the hood of his Oldsmobile proved he had been home for longer than he told police.

Perhaps most importantly, Graham said his attorney was ineffective for failing to present evidence of alternate suspects. The most compelling in this group was Roy Wayne Dean, a troubled and mentally ill man who lived in the trailer park and was 18 when Williams was killed. He would enter Alford pleas to two murders that occurred in 1984, both involving area women who were found nude and shot repeatedly. One was in Kentucky, the other in Tennessee, but because the Kentucky murder had initially been a capital case, he was sentenced to prison in Kentucky. In fact, in the years before the DNA evidence was tested, the Kentucky State Police investigated whether there was a connection between the Kentucky murder and the death of Kay Williams.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals rejected Graham’s appeal on December 4, 2015. The appellate court said that because the DNA testing had excluded Dean as a source of semen, the decision by Graham’s attorney to not aggressively push Dean as an alternate suspect wasn’t prejudicial.

The Kentucky Innocence Project, which is part of the state’s Department of Public Advocacy, began representing Graham around the time of his second appeal.

Lisa Potter, a friend of Graham’s who believed fervently in his innocence, joined the effort. She was also friends with a man named Danny Moles, who shared her belief that Graham was innocent. Moles was Roy Dean’s second cousin. Moles would later testify that Dean’s father had made a cryptic remark about his son’s conduct on the night Williams was murdered—that Roy had come home with bloody clothes and that dogs had gotten after him.

Potter wanted to question members of Dean’s family, but Moles told her she needed to wait because Dean’s mother was protective of her son and wouldn’t allow a bad word to be said about him. After Patsy Dean died in 2014, Potter and Moles began meeting with the Dean family and eventually made contact with Renee Dean, Roy Dean’s little sister.

Renee said she had lived in fear of Roy most of her life. She said he was frequently cruel to her, but she kept quiet because Roy was their mother’s favorite. It was only in 2016 after Potter showed Renee prison records confirming that Dean had been permanently denied parole that she would agree to publicly state what she saw on the night Kay Williams died.

Renee said that she and a cousin, Barbara Keaton, were playing hide-and-seek at the trailer park at about 11 p.m. Renee said she saw Roy as he appeared to be exiting Graham’s trailer. His shirt appeared to be covered in blood, and he was carrying a duffel bag. Renee asked her brother what was going on, and he shushed her away.

Barbara would later testify that she was smoking a cigarette outside when Dean ran up to her. He had a “deer in the headlights” look and wasn’t wearing a shirt, but was holding an unlaced military-style boot in his hand. Keaton also said she feared Roy Dean. She said Roy had raped her when she was 10, and that he had molested Renee Dean.

Graham filed a motion for new trial in 2016, citing the cousins’ statements. Two days of evidentiary hearings were held in 2017 before Judge Kelly Mark Easton in Todd County Circuit Court. The state argued that this wasn’t new evidence because the testimony of the two girls, now women, could have been obtained at trial or in previous post-conviction motions. But Graham’s attorneys noted that these witnesses weren’t even known to state investigators, either in 1980 or in 2008. They had been silent because they were afraid.

Renee Dean testified that not long after Williams was killed, she was with her brother at a bridge and he threatened to push her into the creek. She couldn’t swim. “If you do, I’ll tell Mama,” Renee responded. She testified, “And he said, ‘If you do, I’m going to do you like I did that damn woman in that trailer.’ And I don’t know what he meant by it.”

At the hearing, Moles also testified that Roy Dean’s father told him that his son asked for help in destroying bloody clothes worn on the day of the murder. The father died just before the start of the evidentiary hearings. There was also evidence presented that Dean’s parents kept him away from police during the initial investigation.

Dean himself gave a deposition from prison for the hearing. He denied killing Williams and sexually assaulting his sister and cousin. He also said his memory was bad and that he suffered from blackouts.

Potter’s role came under scrutiny during the hearings. She was criticized for her zealousness and for helping Renee buy $38 of groceries, which the state asserted was tantamount to bribing a witness.

Easton ordered a new trial on October 5, 2017. He noted in his ruling that the evidence against Graham was far from perfect. Moreover, while the stories of Barbara Keaton and Renee Dean didn’t match entirely, they were similar enough to cast uncertainty about whether Graham was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. He wrote: “Graham is not required to prove actual innocence; only the result of a new trial would probably be different.”

After posting bond, Graham was released from prison that day. He was now 73 and suffering from multiple myeloma. Also on October 5, Guiling, the prosecutor in Graham’s second trial, and her husband were indicted on theft charges involving stolen goods in neighboring Logan County. The charges were later dismissed.

The state appealed the ruling, arguing that Easton abused his discretion, but the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in Graham’s favor on October 4, 2019. It wrote: “Although a criminal defendant is not entitled to a perfect trial, he is entitled to a fundamentally fair one. In this case, the combination of newly discovered evidence, along with the evidence produced at trial and on Graham’s prior post-conviction motions, convincingly demonstrates Graham did not receive a fundamentally fair trial.”

On December 18, 2019, prosecutors dismissed the charges against Graham. Todd County Commonwealth’s Attorney Neil Kerr said Williams’s family didn’t want to go through another trial. In addition, he noted that third trial “would be highly unlikely to result in a conviction. As such, it would not serve the public interest or the family of Kay Williams.”

< In 2020, Graham filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky against the Kentucky State Police, Todd County and the estate of its former sheriff, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 1/21/2020
Last Updated: 12/18/2020
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1980
Sentence:40 years
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No