When LeBron Gaither died after being shot during a drug buy while working as an informant, it was either a tragic accident or an inexcusable error by his handlers, the Kentucky State Police.
Now, it's up to the Kentucky Supreme Court to decide which scenario is the case and whether Gaither's family can collect any compensation from troopers for the death.
The justices heard arguments Thursday and took the case under advisement. A ruling is expected in several months.
The case centers on how much liability police have when an informant is killed. It is an issue that 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.
Gaither was killed on a drive between Nelson and Taylor counties while trying to execute a drug buy that would lead to an arrest. Troopers lost track of the car he was riding in. Police later found Gaither's body in Casey County. He had been tortured, stabbed, beaten, dragged and killed.
The Kentucky Board of Claims awarded Gaither's family $168,000. A trial court overturned that decision and the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed.
Dan Taylor, an attorney for Gaither's grandmother, Virginia Gaither, told the justices that troopers violated their legal obligation to ensure the safety of their informant.
"LeBron Gaither had a right to life," Taylor said.
Scott Miller, an attorney for the Kentucky State Police, said troopers did what they could to protect Gaither, but a man named Jason Noel is the reason he was killed. Noel was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing Gaither.
Miller said troopers should take care of their informants, even if not legally required to do so.
"These informants are dealing with some of the most dangerous people in our commonwealth," Miller said. "Without these informants and their knowledge ... we wouldn't be effective. It would eliminate our ability to do our duty for the public at large."
The justices quizzed Miller and zeroed in on whether troopers had a legal duty to watch out for Gaither's well-being since they paid him more than $3,000 to do the work. The justices also questioned how troopers handled Gaither as he testified before two grand juries in the days before being killed.
Gaither was a 17-year-old special education student when he started working as an informant. He testified before a Marion County grand jury early and 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 Jason 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.
Justice Will T. Scott compared the troopers' handling of Gaither to the Roman Emperor Nero sending Christians to wrestle with lions in a coliseum.
"When you send somebody after a lion, you shouldn't be surprised when they get killed," Scott said.
Justice Mary Noble noted that Gaither voluntarily worked as an informant, but asked if it was the best decision to use him again after testifying.
"His identity was burned," Noble said. "Is there not room to question the validity ... of using the same informant so close to the time when he testified?"
Miller said there's no evidence prosecutors "paraded" Gaither around and noted that Esarey violated the confidentiality of the grand jury and Noel was convicted of the killing. Miller said troopers tracked Gaither and Noel the day of the killing, but lost track of them for four seconds — long enough for Noel to drive out of sight of investigators.
"Jason Noel is responsible," Miller said.
Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson didn't sound convinced.
"What set this whole thing in motion was that his confidentiality was blown," Abramson said.
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