Justice: Denied -- The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted




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Tommy Dotson, Convicted By The Testimony Of The Self-Confessed Murderer

Account by Kermetta Dotson

Edited by Peter Centorcelli, JD Staff

On September 18, 1999 Chad Ratliff was last seen alive in the company of Curtis Murphy, a morphine drug buddy. Eight days later, Steve Akers found his body and promptly reported his grisly discovery to the police. The coroner of Pike County, Charles Morris and the head detective, Keith Justice, secured the scene and sent the body to be autopsied. The autopsy revealed Chad Ratliff suffered no other injury except a single gunshot wound to the head. That same day an article appeared in the newspaper about Chad's disappearance and his mother's concern for his well-being. The article told how Tommy Dotson had threatened Chad about money owed to Tommy. It also mentioned that Chad was last seen in the company of Curtis Murphy. The police had two ready-made suspects they called in for questioning.

During his questioning, the police asked Tommy Dotson if they could search his van. Tommy readily agreed to the request. The police turned up some bloody paper towels and some drug paraphernalia. Tommy claimed the towels were from a nosebleed he had earlier; police testing confirmed the blood was his and not Chad's. Tommy was allowed to leave but was told drug charges would be pending.

Curtis never made it to the police station for his questioning. On the way, he was pulled over and arrested for driving with a suspended license. Detective Justice went to the Pike County Detention Center to question him. At first Curtis admitted nothing. Under further questioning, Curtis admitted to being there but implicated Tommy Dotson as the murderer. Curtis said he and Chad had gone to the hospital, where Chad signed out ten needles from the pharmacy. They ate dinner and stopped in the parking lot of a nightclub to shoot morphine. While driving home, Chad got a page and pulled over to return the call.

Curtis said Chad told him it was Tommy Dotson and they were going to meet him at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken for a drug exchange. The KFC proved no good because Chad said there was a police officer at the restaurant next door. According to Curtis, the three of them went to a remote road off the main highway called Cedar Creek, the place where Chad's body would be discovered. Curtis claimed his car couldn't make it all the way up the hill so they left it and continued to the top in Tommy's van. Curtis then said an argument broke out between Chad and Tommy over the money owed to Tommy. Chad started firing, Curtis ran to his car down the hill. He claims Tommy tossed him a gun and Curtis shot at Chad in the van. (Police were unable to find any bullet holes in Tommy's van.) Curtis says that Tommy shot Chad in the head, dragged him from the van and put two more shots, point-blank, into Chad's chest. (The autopsy only uncovered a single head wound.) Curtis took Detective Justice to the scene of the shooting and was taken back to lockup.

The police issued a warrant for Tommy and at 3:40 A.M. on September 27, 1999 Tommy was arrested for the murder of Chad Ratliff. Tommy refused to speak without an attorney present. Curtis, by his own admission present at the murder, was released on September 27, 1999 at 2:30 P.M. He was asked to come back and answer some more questions. Curtis returned to the police station with his girlfriend Angie. While questioning the two of them, police decided it seemed they had fabricated a story about Curtis' whereabouts on September 18, 1999. Police questioned them separately. Detective Justice got Curtis to admit that he had told Angie to say Tommy had done the shooting. Detective Justice asked Curtis to go to the room where Angie was being questioned and have her tell the truth about what she knew. Curtis went and tried to make sure Angie didn't waver from their earlier story. Angie became confused and refused to answer any more questions. Two detectives continued questioning Curtis until he also became confused and asked to be excused from further questioning that day. Even though police knew Curtis was present at the shooting and even though police suspected him of lying and even though police thought it was apparent his girlfriend was lying for him, Curtis and Angie were allowed to leave.

Curtis came back on September 28th and was questioned about drug dealing in the area. No further questions about the murder were asked and Curtis was once again allowed to leave. Meanwhile, Tommy Dotson was being questioned with his attorney, Robbie Wright, present. Tommy maintained his innocence, saying he and his wife had gone grocery shopping on September 18th and then went home to prepare dinner for company. Tommy's mother-in-law and her boyfriend came over that evening. Tommy suggested getting the video from the grocery store but this was never done.

Tommy Dotson implicated Curtis. Tommy said Chad would make sexual advances on Angie and she was angry because Curtis never did anything about it. Tommy's attorney told police that Randy Sparks had called and told him Curtis had killed Chad. Randy said he heard this from Curtis at a party they both attended. Police tried to contact Randy Sparks but were unable to reach him. They never tried again.

On October 3, 1999 Donnie Estepp, an inmate, said he had information about Chad's murder. Donnie said Tommy told him on the way to another court proceeding that he had killed Chad. (Donnie would later say that Tommy told him in the weight room.) Donnie said Tommy had taken pills and money from Chad after he shot him. (Chad's body still wore expensive jewelry when it was found.)

That same day, Gail McCoy, Kim McCoy and Clifford McCoy went to the police station with information about the murder. They said Curtis and Angie came to Gail's house on September 18th at around 9 P.M. According to Gail, Curtis and Angie were acting very nervous. Curtis finally said, "Should I tell them, Angela?" Angie said to go ahead and Curtis told the McCoys he had killed Chad. Since Curtis wasn't in custody, police paid to have the McCoys stay at a hotel. Police went to get a warrant to arrest Curtis but the Commonwealth's attorney told them they couldn't get the warrant unless they released Tommy. The police didn't arrest Curtis.

On October 4, 1999 Curtis was once again brought in for questioning. Curtis agreed to have his home searched for the murder weapon. No gun was found.

At 10:30 A.M. on October 6, 1999 Angie went back to the police station to give another statement. This time she admitted Curtis had told her and the McCoys that he had killed Chad and was going to frame Tommy Dotson. Angie also told police she and Curtis had taken the gun over to Curtis' grandmother's house. Curtis gave the gun, which belonged to his grandmother, to his mother, telling her to break it down and dispose of it. With the help of Curtis' mother, police recovered the gun. The gun was shown to be the murder weapon and Curtis was arrested for the murder of Chad Ratliff at 2:30 P.M. (The Commonwealth's attorney made no provision about releasing Tommy this time.) In a videotaped confession, Curtis admitted to shooting Chad. Two days before Tommy's trial, Curtis plea-bargained to a manslaughter charge.

Tommy Dotson's trial was a farce from the outset. The presiding judge was a close friend of Chad Ratliff's father and should have removed himself from the trial. Of the three alibi witnesses -- Tommy's wife, his mother-in-law and her boyfriend -- only Tommy's wife testified. Tommy's attorney, Robbie Wright, felt the others' testimony wouldn't help Tommy and the prosecution would claim they were lying. As it turned out, the prosecution claimed the reason they didn't testify was because they weren't the kind of people who would lie on the stand and Tommy's wife would lie to protect her husband. The defense called an inmate who had shared a cell with Curtis. This inmate claimed Curtis offered him $2,000 to testify against Tommy. The state's attorney dismissed his testimony by saying he was a convict so he couldn't be trusted. The state had no such concerns about Donnie Estepp's truthfulness. Due to Curtis' plea bargain, the McCoys were only allowed to testify about having a conversation with Curtis the night of the murder but not the content of the conversation, which was ruled hearsay. (Even though a first person conversation with the suspect should have been allowed as evidence.) The state's attorney dismissed the McCoys by saying anyone who would have Curtis as a friend couldn't be trusted.

After the trial, it was discovered a 911 call had been made on September 18, 1999 from an unidentified man. The caller said he knew Curtis had killed Chad and loaded the body in his car to dump elsewhere. Police decided it was probably Randy Sparks but never interviewed him. The police also declined to search Curtis' car even though they had reason to believe it was used to transport a dead Chad Ratliff. The police never investigated Tommy's alibi, which could have been confirmed with the grocery store's video. No physical evidence linked Tommy to the crime. Only the words of Curtis, a self confessed murderer, and Donnie, a convict, even placed Tommy at the scene. Now protected by the double jeopardy laws, Curtis has admitted Tommy had nothing to do with the murder. Curtis believed he would be able to avoid a life sentence if he had an accomplice he could blame. He has even agreed to testify if a retrial is ordered. Donnie has admitted Curtis had given him $500 to implicate Tommy.

Enough evidence exists to cast a serious doubt on Tommy Dotson's conviction. The potential bias of the presiding judge and the apparent errors of Tommy's representation should, at the very least, entitle Tommy to a new trial. It's time for the state of Kentucky to stop worrying about saving face and to begin serving justice.

Tommy Dotson
172 Division St.
Pikeville, Ky. 41501

©Justice: Denied

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