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Gadsden Police Chief accused of "improper" visits with capital murder suspect

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Police Chief John Crane. Source: WBRC video Police Chief John Crane. Source: WBRC video
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GADSDEN, AL (WBRC) -

Gadsden's police chief is in the midst of a disciplinary hearing over whether visits to a capital murder suspect violated department rules.

Police Chief John Crane said in Tuesday's hearing that he began visiting Justin Denson in jail just after Denson's arrest in January 2010. He says he did so because Denson went to school with his son.

Denson was initially charged with murder for the December 2009 beating death of his mother, Nita Gay Denson. Prosecutors say he beat her in the head with a hammer while she slept and he then went on a cross-country spending spree with her debit cards and some cash. A grand jury later upgraded the charges to capital murder, meaning a sentence of either death by lethal injection or life in prison without parole.

Crane said his visits were always spiritual in nature and emphatically stated he never considered his visits part of his capacity as police chief. Crane says he started the visits when he was still a Birmingham police officer and continued them after he became Gadsden's chief.

However, family members of Nita Denson were upset when prosecutors found out about the visits for the first time in November 2012. District Attorney Jimmie Harp and Deputy D.A. Marcus Reid both testified in the hearing and Crane's visits were a factor as they accepted a plea deal to regular murder. Despite his 119-year sentence, Justin Denson will be eligible for parole in 2025.

Nita Denson's niece and Justin Denson's cousin, Joy Bates, broke into tears as she recalled finding out about her aunt's brutal murder on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2010, the day of Justin Denson's arrest. She told the board her aunt deserved justice.

"I've always trusted law enforcement, maybe because I've been married to one. You would think that kind of person would not do something like this, and jeopardize a case," Bates told the board.

Crane, however, said he did this because he felt he was following the will of God and his Catholic faith.

"I can only describe it as an inner voice," Crane told the board, "that said, ‘Reach out.'"

Crane framed his argument as an ultimate meeting with God.

"If I had not done this, how would I answer the question of, 'Chief Crane, I sent you this man, to get him to turn his life around, and you didn't do it because it's not your job?'" he said.

Crane says he and Denson still write letters to each other, now that Denson has been transferred to the state prison system.

The board finished hearing all testimony Tuesday night, with one board member, Jason Stinson, going as far as to say he already felt Crane's visits were improper. He asked Crane if the board were to order him to stop such visits, if he would comply, and Crane indicated his faith would dictate more visits.

The board will reconvene Wednesday evening at 5 to decide whether Crane is in violation of departmental guidelines and if so, how to punish him.

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