Frankie Covington has served 16 years of a life sentence for kidnapping his former lawyer, but now he may have a shot at freedom.
The Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy is seeking to revoke Covington's conviction and win him a new trial on the grounds that Sharon Muse Johnson – Covington's former lawyer, who is now the commonwealth’s attorney for Bourbon, Scott and Woodford counties – perjured herself when she testified at his trial.
The agency’s attorneys say they re-investigated the highly publicized kidnapping after one of the prosecutors who tried it said he noticed discrepancies between Muse Johnson’s trial testimony and her account of the crime in her 2020 book, “Kidnapped by a Client: The Incredible True Story of a Lawyer’s Fight for Justice.”
“In my opinion, the 'facts' presented in the book are in part inconsistent with the facts presented to me by Muse Johnson before trial, the evidence presented at trial, and my recollection” of her victim impact statement, prosecutor Keith Eardley said in an affidavit filed with the motion.
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Eardley, who ran unsuccessfully against Muse Johnson for commonwealth’s attorney in 2018, said he had an ethical obligation to report the inconsistencies. His former boss, retired Commonwealth’s Attorney Gordy Shaw, said in a separate affidavit that he agreed.
Lawyers now questioning whether kidnapping actually took place
In the 38-page motion filed Nov. 4 in Bourbon Circuit Court, public advocacy department attorneys said a comparison of Muse Johnson’s statements over time – including immediately after the crime, in a victim impact statement, at trial, in her book and in public appearances promoting the book – revealed numerous “glaring inconsistencies” that render her sworn testimony unreliable.
“The commonwealth deprived Mr. Covington of the fundamental concept of justice and liberty when its star witness provided perjured testimony and a fabricated version of events,” the motion says. “Mr. Covington is currently incarcerated for not only a crime that he did not commit but for a crime that quite possibly never took place.”
Muse Johnson's attorney, Kenyon Meyer, said she would not comment on the motion. But in an email, he said: “All crime victims deserve justice. Attacking victims like Ms. Muse Johnson deters all crime victims from having the courage to share their stories.”
Meyer also said “these attacks against her are being pushed because of a political agenda by a former prosecutor she beat for office in 2018.”
“If there was any validity to the issues her former opponent seeks to raise, he would have raised them years ago,” Meyer said.
Muse Johnson's book account differs from sworn testimony
The motion says that during a recorded interview with police a few hours after the alleged crime, Muse Johnson said Covington “squeezed the back of her neck and nothing more.”
But five years later, she testified Covington touched her multiple times, including near her genitalia.
And in her book, she wrote that he “punched me all over my body” and smashed her head into a window and the steering wheel.
“Stars exploded behind my eyes,” she wrote.
The public advocates say in the motion that the injuries she claimed did not match those in a medical report from Georgetown Hospital, which said she received minor injuries.
The motion says she exaggerated and fabricated her story “presumably in order to gain recognition and notoriety in the community.”
In his affidavit, Eardley noted Muse Johnson wrote in her book that Covington threatened to kill her as she escaped. "'It may be tomorrow, it may be next year, but I will kill you,” she quoted him as saying.
But Eardley said she never disclosed that to police “to my knowledge” nor shared it with him, even though they went over the crime in detail before the trial.
He also pointed out discrepancies between the injuries she claimed to receive – including "bloody wounds on her chest – and the evidence at trial that she received “three minor scratches.”
Muse Johnson says on her book's cover that is a true account; in a footnote, she said she changed Covington’s last name to keep him from getting more notoriety.
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Covington, 58, is serving his time at a medium security facility about 140 miles southeast of Louisville.
“Mr. Covington does know about the motion, and he does want the opportunity to present his case in front of another jury,” Browning said. But she said he is not hopeful. “Mr. Covington has already served over 16 years and lost a lot of hope in our criminal justice system.”
How Frankie Covington was convicted of kidnapping
Sharon Muse, as she was then known, was leaving her office at 5 p.m. on April 7, 2006, when Covington, whom she had briefly represented previously in District Court, showed up and asked for help with a will. She told him to make an appointment.
He then asked for a ride to his grandmother’s house, pointing to approaching stormy weather.
In her initial statements, Muse Johnson said she agreed to give him one. But at trial, she testified he opened the door to her car without permission. When she put up a website years later to promote her book, she wrote she had told him “no” seven times when he asked for the ride.
He made her drive to a secluded farm, where, she said, he pulled a knife with the intent to rape her. But she got away.
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Covington pleaded guilty in 2007 to sexual abuse, kidnapping and being a persistent felon in a plea bargain in exchange for a 20-year sentence. But after a psychological exam, the judge imposed a life sentence. Covington appealed and the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed, saying he should have had the right to withdraw his plea when it was rejected by the court.
Five years later, his case went to trial and a jury found him guilty of kidnapping and being a persistent felon. He was acquitted on the sexual abuse charge and sentenced to life when his sentence was enhanced for being a persistent felon.
Covington had previously been convicted of multiple felony charges, according to court record, but the jury was told only about one of them, for terroristic threatening in 2003, for which he served three years. He was released a couple of days before the kidnapping.
The commonwealth claimed Covington abducted his former lawyer to avenge his conviction and sentence. But the motion says that made no sense because she represented him only in a preliminary hearing and got him released from jail.
The motion will be heard by a special judge, but no date has been set for a hearing.
Previous cases involving Muse Johnson scrutinized
Muse Johnson won her first term as commonwealth’s attorney in 2018 and has had to fend off allegations of improprieties. They include a claim from a former judge that she seated too many grand jurors in criminal cases. Because Kentucky law requires only nine votes to indict, impaneling more grand jurors increases the chances of obtaining an indictment.
The attorney general’s office investigated more than 160 cases in her circuit and recommended that many be dismissed. They include two murder indictments and one for child rape.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kentucky lawyer Sharon Muse Johnson's book may free alleged kidnapper