In one of his last official acts, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has commuted the life sentence of Paul Donel Hurt, who had served nearly two decades on charges of sexually abusing his 6-year-old stepdaughter.
Bevin granted the executive order for the pardon late last week, citing the victim’s controversial recantation of the story that originally sent Hurt to prison.
“Hindsight is never truly 20/20,” Bevin wrote, “but it appears to me, and to many others including the judge who sentenced him,” that Hurt was “wrongly convicted.”
Hurt, 45, was arrested after his stepdaughter told her mother that Hurt had molested her over several months in late 1999 and early 2000. He was convicted in 2001 on three counts of sodomy in the first degree and two counts of sexual abuse in the first degree, according to court documents.
That might have been the end of it ― with Hurt serving out his punishment ― until the man who sentenced him, Jefferson Circuit Judge Stephen Mershon, reached out to Hurt in prison after retiring from the judiciary. The two began a correspondence.
According to court documents, “Judge Mershon became convinced that Hurt was innocent in this matter” and, in “an effort to obtain Hurt’s release,” he “contacted the victim and assisted her in writing a letter to Governor Steven Beshear seeking a pardon or commutation for Hurt” in 2015.
(Steven Beshear’s son, Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was elected to replace Bevin in a hotly contested race earlier this month.)
Mershon then helped set up a hearing at which the woman recanted her story that Hurt had sexually abused her. Still, Jefferson Circuit Judge Audra Eckerle decided not to set aside the conviction. She pointed out that the woman’s recantation was inconsistent with what she had said previously.
Eckerle said that Mershon had “altered” the victim’s memory “by using coercion and intimidation,” and her recantation could not “give the Court confidence” that she was telling the truth “given her clear feelings of guilt about losing family relations.” The victim steadfastly maintained her version of events for 15 years, before she was approached by Mershon.
“It was only brought about by the highly unusual circumstance” of Mershon “confronting her directly and privately,” Eckerle said. “Even with his involvement, it took quite some time” to secure a full recantation, she wrote.
Her decision was upheld in 2018.
Bevin, however, said he believed it was his “moral duty” to pardon the convicted child molester. The governor’s decision will expunge Hurt’s criminal record.
“It is my fervent hope and prayer that Mr Hurt will find his faith in God and in his fellow man restored,” the governor wrote.
Mershon picked up Hurt from prison and delivered him to his mother’s house, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.
“We’ll never know what happened 19, 20 years ago,” the former judge told the newspaper. He added that if Hurt had been “playing me,” then that would mean “he was the best con artist in the world.”