The homicide detective now at the center of a Memphis Police Department sex scandal also made news in 2018 for his role in a contentious murder case that led to reforms in MPD’s interrogation practices.
Lt. Eric Kelly is the focus of intense news coverage this week following his resignation amid an internal investigation into a sexual relationship he had with a murder suspect.
Kelly was also a focus in a series of stories in Fall 2018 by the Institute for Public Service Reporting that explored MPD’s reluctance to video- or audio-record custodial interrogations of murder suspects even though numbers of law enforcement agencies across Tennessee and the nation had been doing so for years.
Kelly’s controversial handling of a suspect accused of killing a woman and burning her body led to a generous plea deal that could put the man back on the street in just seven years.
Months after the Institute’s reports, MPD launched a pilot program to video record all homicide interrogations. Details of the program remain sketchy but MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said in an email that police hope to tweak the program.
“Yes, the pilot was a success,’’ Rudolph wrote. “However, we are still looking into other equipment and funding options. All bureaus that are at police headquarters are taping interviews (Homicide, Economic Crimes, Felony Response and Sex Crimes).’’
Although Mayor Jim Strickland spokeswoman Ursula Madden had told the Institute in 2018 that such a move could cost as much as $2.5 million, Rudolph said this week: “Thus far, the cost has been minimal due to we have been using equipment that we already had on hand.’’
Rudolph did not provide specific dollar amounts.
Kelly’s controversial handling of a suspect accused of killing a womn and burning her body led to a generous plea deal that could put the man back on the street in just seven years.
One case featured in the Institute’s series involved Cordell Walton, now 24, who was arrested July 12, 2017, and brought in for questioning for the murder of Khadijah Perry, 21, whose body was found in 2016 in an abandoned house. She’d been shot in the head and her body burned beyond recognition.
Walton’s lawyers maintained he was tricked into confessing during a three-hour interrogation after Kelly and another detective manufactured evidence against him. Key to their claims was a 21-minute cell phone audio recording Kelly made that included a brief “hot mic” moment in which he and other officers seemed to openly worry about their interrogation tactics. According to defense attorneys, those tactics included fabricating a DNA report and planning to lie about it.
Before the cell phone recording appeared in evidence, Kelly testified that police had made no recordings of their questioning of Walton.
“Did you audio record your conversation with him at any time?’’ then-Asst. Public Defender Anna Hamilton asked Kelly at a Sept. 27, 2017, preliminary hearing that led to Walton’s indictment.
“Negative,’’ Kelly answered.
“Video record?’’ the attorney then asked.
“No,’’ Kelly said.
“Do you have a cell phone?’’
“Does it have recording capabilities?’’
“Uh, I’m not sure,’’ the detective replied.
About four months later, however, following Walton’s indictment, the state released its evidence against him through a process known as discovery. Among scores of pages, it included a copy of the recording and a single, unsigned sheet – a supplemental report – referencing an “audio recording’’ of the confession.
A 56-second snip from the 21-minute recording particularly intrigued Walton’s attorneys.
Then-defense lawyer Neil Umsted said this “hot mic” moment demonstrates the depth of detectives’ deceit.
“Someone forgets to press stop,’’ Umsted said in a 2018 hearing.
On the tape, as Walton is taken away after confessing, Kelly huddles with fellow detective Fausto Frias and supervisor Tony Mullins.
“We put on a great show,’’ Frias says. A moment later, supervisor Mullins offers his assessment:
“He didn’t seem to bite too hard on the DNA, though,’’ he says.
When Kelly replies, “Actually, he did,’’ Mullins appears to say:
“He didn’t, because that will f—ing get him suppression,’’ an evident reference to a legal maneuver in which a defense lawyer asks a judge to suppress or toss a confession from evidence. Although detectives generally are allowed to trick a suspect, courts have drawn limits to such tactics.
Umsted argued the exchange amounted to the case’s smoking gun – proof the detectives “orchestrated a fake DNA test,’’ then laid plans to lie about it.
Critical to that argument is this exchange:
“If he’s smart, he’d lawyer up,’’ Mullins says, suggesting Walton needs an attorney.
“They can bring up all kinds of s—, but none of that s— happened,’’ Frias responds. “… That s— is not recorded. If they press play we going to the penitentiary.’’
Though Umsted failed to get the confession suppressed, he believed the tape led to a favorable December 2018 plea deal for his client.
Facing a possible life sentence for first-degree murder, Walton pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Sentenced to 15 years, he will be eligible for parole after serving less than seven.
“It was pretty clear to me that they did not want that tape to be played in a public trial in front of a jury,’’ Umsted told the Institute then. “They recognized the problems with it.’’
District Attorney Amy Weirich said the plea was reached after “looking at all the evidence,’’ yet conceded “the prosecution team was aware of’’ the tape.
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.