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Court reinstates part of suit over Ky. sheriff's death

Feb. 22, 2013 @ 12:59 PM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — The family of a slain eastern Kentucky sheriff can pursue a civil suit against a one-time political rival and a former deputy convicted of shooting and killing the lawman after the Kentucky Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated part of a civil suit.

The appellate panel ruled that former Harlan County Sheriff Steve Duff and now-imprisoned deputy Roger Dean Hall were not immune from being sued by the family of 57-year-old Paul L. Browning Jr., who was killed as he sought re-election in 2002.

Judge Jeff S. Taylor, writing for a three-judge panel, concluded that Hall wasn't entitled to immunity from being sued and Duff wasn't immune from being sued for Hall's actions in arranging Browning's slaying. Taylor found that the concept of sovereign immunity — which generally prevents government officials from being sued for acts taken as part of their official duties — didn't apply to Duff because the sheriff is liable for the acts of his deputies.

Taylor also found that Hall couldn't be sued for any actions he took as a sheriff's deputy, but could be held liable for things he did that went beyond that role.

Duff, though, is on the hook for anything that Hall did, Taylor wrote.

"This opinion should not be misconstrued as holding Sheriff Duff, in his official capacity, liable for the alleged negligent or intentional wrongful acts of Deputy Sheriff Hall.," Taylor wrote.

Browning's family sued Hall and Duff in 2010 in Harlan Circuit Court. They alleged that Duff was negligent in hiring, training, and supervising Hall, which led to Browning's death. Browning's family also claimed that Duff planned and directed Hall, then a narcotics detective, in the murder plot.

Senior Judge Roderick Messer dismissed the suit in 2011.

Browning disappeared in March 2002, while campaigning for re-election. His remains were identified in a burned out truck several days later.

Hall, a narcotics detective under former Harlan County Sheriff Steve Duff, is serving a five-year sentence in state prison for his role in the plot.

Raymond Harris, 66, is serving life in prison after being found guilty of shooting Browning in the head.

Roger Hall, with the intent to promote or facilitate the commission of a crime, agreeing with one or more persons, that at least one of them will engage in conduct constituting such crime, by paying Raymond Harris to kill Paul Browning Jr.

Harris' nephew, Dewayne Harris, and Johnny Epperson pleaded guilty to their involvement in the murder of Browning

Epperson, 55, is serving a five year sentence for criminal facilitation. The legal status of Dewayne Harris was not immediately clear Friday.

Browning was elected sheriff in 1981 but was arrested the next year on suspicion of plotting to kill a magistrate and the county school board chairman. Neither was killed.

Browning served about three years of a 10 year sentence in state prison. He was paroled in 1985. Browning ran the sheriff's office from his jail cell at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville until Gov. John Y. Brown removed him in 1983.