This story was updated to correct the number of counts in the lawsuit and the number of days the defendants have to file a response to the lawsuit.
The Grundy County man wrongly convicted of a 2006 murder he didn't commit and freed after serving 13 years in a Tennessee prison filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday against the county government, its investigators and the former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent on the case, according to documents in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.
Adam Braseel's suit doesn't specify an amount but seeks an award of nominal, punitive, compensatory and presumed damages for each of 12 counts related to alleged violations of his civil rights on the part of investigators and the county government, according to the suit filed by Braseel and his Chattanooga attorney, Robin Flores. Braseel, 39, now lives in another part of the state.
The suit names the Grundy County government and the estate of deceased Sheriff Brent Myers, former Chief Deputy Lonnie Cleek, former Deputy Andrew West and retired TBI agent Larry Davis in their individual capacities, the document states.
Braseel was freed in 2019 by Circuit Court Judge Justin Angel based in part on fingerprint evidence indicating another man was at the murder scene in Tracy City. Braseel was exonerated in December 2021 by Gov. Bill Lee, who said Braseel's outcome offered justice where the criminal justice system failed.
Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady said Thursday the county hadn't been served the suit yet and he had not seen it.
"Once we are served, we'll be turning all the information (over) to our legal representation who'll be handling the case, whoever that may be," Brady said Thursday in a phone interview.
When Braseel was freed in 2019, he had entered a best-interest plea to aggravated assault in return for the dismissal of the 2007 conviction on a murder charge that had put him behind bars. A best-interest plea, according to the website uslegal.com, means that a defendant does not admit guilt to any offense but agrees that a guilty plea is in his best interest under the circumstances. The defendant is still able to disagree with the prosecutor's description of events.
That day Braseel walked away a free man, but with a felony still on his record he stubbornly maintained was forced and unjust. Tennessee's seven-member Executive Clemency Unit panel in June 2020 voted unanimously for exoneration after more than six hours of testimony, questions and discussion, including testimony from Braseel himself.
Braseel had been charged with first-degree murder, robbery and aggravated assault in the 2006 beating death of Tracy City resident Malcolm Burrows and the attack on his sister, Becky Hill, and her son, Kirk Braden. Hill and Braden have since died.
According to Braseel's suit, Grundy County investigators botched the investigation from the beginning.
Among the allegations in the suit, Braseel contends investigators used flawed and unreliable eyewitness identification; unlawfully arrested him without evidence other than faulty witness identifications; failed to investigate other witness reports of possible suspects; suppressed or destroyed case evidence, specifically fabricated evidence of a "missing wallet" that was later found; manipulated descriptions of the suspect vehicle; fabricated evidence of one of the victims knowing the attacker; and prosecuted Braseel maliciously, lawsuit documents state.
The suit filed Wednesday contends Braseel's rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated in the malicious prosecution of his case, denial of due process by suppression and fabrication of evidence, conspiracy to deprive him of his constitutional rights, and authorities' failure to intervene in that conspiracy. Braseel accuses investigators of intentionally inflicting emotional distress, maliciously prosecuting him, civil conspiracy and negligence, documents state.
"We are thrilled to be representing Adam in his civil rights suit filed yesterday against the individuals we believe are responsible for his wrongful conviction," Braseel's lead legal counsel, Kathleen Zellner, said Thursday in an emailed statement. "We believe it is imperative to correct this grave miscarriage of justice and hold those responsible for it accountable. Adam deserves compensation for the 13 years of his life that were stolen from him."
Zellner, from Warrenville, Illinois, specialized in such cases.
Federal court records did not reflect service of the suit on the five defendants as of Thursday afternoon. On Thursday, Brady said officials will review the suit to determine whether the county attorney or the county's insurance carrier's attorneys will handle the case.