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Kentucky Prosecutor Sharon Muse’s Own Kidnapping Is Now a True Crime Fiasco

Kentucky Prosecutor Sharon Muse’s Own Kidnapping Is Now a True Crime Fiasco

On April 7, 2006, Frankie Covington waited outside Sharon Muse’s law office in Georgetown, Kentucky, where he said he hoped to get some assistance with a will. Covington had briefly been one of Muse’s clients in the past, and the attorney later recalled that Covington told her his wife had recently died. For his part, Covington had been released from prison days earlier after an adult exploitation and terroristic threatening conviction.

It was after 5 p.m. on a Friday, Muse told Covington, explaining that she couldn’t help him right away. But Covington said he needed a ride.

Out of fear or generosity, Muse agreed. What came next has the sordid, harrowing narrative of a true crime saga—including allegations of a violent kidnapping and attempted rape that sent Covington to prison for life.

“He was going to rape me,” Muse told the 911 dispatcher.

This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.

But the story of what occurred in Muse’s car that day has since taken a series of bizarre turns. First, it became part of a powerful biography for her election as a prosecutor and as a compelling narrative for her true crime memoir. Now it is the crux of a remarkable innocence claim from Covington’s legal team—backed, incredibly, by the prosecutors who won the original conviction—which alleges that Muse’s story has shifted significantly over time. Meanwhile, Muse’s tenure as prosecutor has been marred by allegations of misconduct and conflicts of interest, including after she later married the judge who sentenced Covington to life.

She’s the only victim we’ve ever had who has ever complained about the offender receiving the maximum sentence possible.

Gordie Shaw, former prosecutor

Gordie Shaw, one of the prosecutors who worked the original Covington case and whose retirement set the stage for Muse’s election, told The Daily Beast that “what [Muse] said in the book was not lining up at all what she had said in the victim-impact statement, which the judge relies upon for sentencing.”

Of Muse, Shaw lamented, “She’s the only victim we’ve ever had who has ever complained about the offender receiving the maximum sentence possible.”

Leigh Goodmark, author of Imperfect Victims: Criminalized Survivors and the Promise of Abolition Feminism and director of University of Maryland Francis King Carey Law Gender Violence Clinic, told The Daily Beast that Muse’s case is especially difficult.

“As someone who has represented victims for 25 years, my inclination is to believe and be supportive of the things that they tell me. And I know that the details of cases can change over time. And that, as a function of trauma, memory is often impaired. So people may recall details at later dates that they didn’t recall at an earlier date. Stories can change. And that’s not necessarily an indication of dishonesty. It may be a function of the impact of trauma on memory,” Goodmark said.

“But this feels different to me.”

As Muse gave Covington a ride that day, his directions became confused, and she grew suspicious of him. Muse had briefly represented Covington in District Court in 2001 for the “terroristic threatening” charge. She called her boyfriend and put the phone on speaker. At some point, Covington told Muse to make a turn. Muse refused. She said the road looked “deserted.”

“I stopped the car and told him to get out,” Muse later said. “He grabbed my shirt and bra and pulled me while he was reaching for a weapon.”

Muse told her boyfriend who was listening in that Covington had a weapon. She escaped out of her car, and, using the phone of someone who stopped to help, told the 911 operator that Covington “grabbed [her] and pulled a knife out.” She said Covington told her “he went to jail because of [her],” and demanded she “take her clothes off.”

Covington, who was carrying a fishing knife, was arrested that evening. Muse was taken to the hospital. Medical records and photographs show red marks on Muse’s chest. They were identified at the time as “minor scratches.” The man who stopped to help Muse saw Covington grabbing her and later said that he assumed it was a couple fighting.

For Covington, the ride from the attorney’s law office led to a life sentence for kidnapping and being a persistent felony offender under Kentucky’s mass-incarceration fueling Persistent Felony Offender (PFO) statute. (Covington’s criminal record also includes convictions on burglary and criminal possession of a forged instrument charges.). For Muse, the incident turned into a central part of a career as a prosecutor and author: she is a leading victims’ rights advocate in Kentucky, the Commonwealth Attorney for the state’s 14th Judicial Circuit, and a true crime author of an aptly-named book Kidnapped By a Client: The Incredible True Story of an Attorneys Fight for Justice for Skyhorse, a publishing house whose books are distributed by Simon & Schuster.

In her early statements, Muse said she agreed to give Covington a ride. At trial, she testified that he opened her car door without her permission.

In a motion to set aside Covington’s conviction and sentence filed in November, his attorneys say that over the years, not only has Muse provided a staggering number of conflicting accounts of the alleged kidnapping, but there is good reason to doubt that the incident happened at all.

“Mr. Covington is currently incarcerated for not only a crime that he did not commit, but for a crime that quite possibly never took place,” his attorneys write. “He has been incarcerated for over 16 years and risks the chance of never being released due to the lies and willful misconduct of the victim in this case.”

Muse’s lawyer Kenyon Meyer wrote in an email to The Daily Beast that “given that Ms. Muse Johnson is the victim of a violent crime in an ongoing case, we are not responding to questions beyond our filings in the case.”

Meyer attached a response to the Covington motion that he filed with Bourbon County Circuit Court on Jan. 20. “The Court should deny Covington’s motion to set aside his kidnapping conviction,” Meyer wrote in the motion. “A jury convicted him of kidnapping, the Supreme Court of Kentucky affirmed, and he should spend the rest of his life behind bars. Ms. Muse Johnson’s life depends on it. Covington is a violent, persistent felony offender who kidnapped Ms. Muse Johnson. He threatened to rape her. He threatened to kill her. His tenth felony conviction was lawful, and his life sentence was both justified and just. The Court should deny the motion without a hearing.”

Whitney Browning, Covington’s post-conviction attorney and staff attorney for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, told The Daily Beast her office will be “responding to those motions and asking the court to strike it from the record.”

In 2007, Covington entered a guilty plea to kidnapping and first-degree sexual abuse. A few days later, he said he wanted to withdraw it, arguing he was not competent at the time to enter such a plea. A judge denied Covington’s request. Two years later, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that Covington had been denied the ability to withdraw his plea. He finally went to trial in 2011.

In the years between Covington’s 2006 arrest and his trial, Muse’s account of the incident shifted. Her two victim impact statements—one in 2007, another in 2011—two written statements that are not dated at all, and her 2011 trial testimony, contain “glaring numerous inconsistencies,” according to the motion from Covington’s attorneys.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Kentucky Commonwealth Attorney’s Association

The transcript of the April 7, 2006, 911 call shows the dispatcher asking Muse if Covington hit her. “No, he grabbed me,” Muse told the dispatcher. But at trial, Muse testified that “all I could see were his hands and I was so focused on his hands and where they were and was he going to hit me. A couple of times he pulled back like he was going to punch me and he didn’t…. He grabbed, he touched…. He never just hauled off and punched me right in the face. Well, until the end. He punched me all over my whole body.”

In her early statements, Muse said she agreed to give Covington a ride. At trial, she testified that he opened her car door without her permission.

Browning told The Daily Beast that Muse’s “details escalate over time.”

“From the beginning, Mr. Covington has admitted that he grabbed her. And the witness that testified at trial testified that he saw him grabbing her by the arm and trying to put her back into the car,” Browning said.

But, she added, “Getting a life sentence for grabbing someone is a very big deal.”

As Covington served his prison sentence, Muse became a prominent victims’ rights advocate. She created a website, Own Your Moment, which instructs people on how to identify potential threats and assume the proper “mindset, awareness, and tactics,” and offers tips for victims on how to become empowered in the criminal justice system. It also provides granular accounts of the 2006 incident with Covington. An infographic on the website teases a “by the numbers” look at the incident. There, Muse says she told Covington “no” 7 times when he asked for a ride, a sharp contrast to what she said in her 911 call. “He asked me—said he just needed a ride a few blocks down the road, and I said, fine,” she told the dispatcher. The infographic says that in the car, she “took 9 blows to the face from his fist” and “17 punches to my body.”

One prosecutor on the Covington case described her injuries as “minor scratches on her upper right chest.”

In his recent filing, Meyer disputed that Muse’s injuries were insignificant and listed injuries from her medical records not cited in the Covington team motion. “Covington characterizes Ms. Muse Johnson’s injuries as ‘minor scratches,’” Meyer wrote. “Covington took a half page from Ms. Muse Johnson’s medical records and included it in the body of the motion. It is no accident that he did not include the full page. The rest of that page indicates that Ms. Muse Johnson suffered ‘myalgias,’ ‘back pain,’ ‘arthragias, [sic]’ ‘bruising,’ and ‘swelling.’”

On Muse’s website, she portrays Covington as a disgruntled and disturbed former client who planned to take her to an abandoned farm and rape and murder her.

“I’m not fear mongering,” Muse told The Southeast Outlook in 2015. “I want people to realize that we are sheep. Predators are wolves. They are wired to devour us. We can make it easy for them or make them regret they picked us.”

That same year, Muse made appearances on local AM radio, where she said she endured “full blows to the face” from Covington and that when she exited the car to get away from Covington, she had “blood on her breasts.”

“In every single one of these instances, Mrs. Muse-Johnson’s story has changed,” the Covington team motion reads. “Evidence used to convict Mr. Covington was unreliable and seriously undermines the validity of his conviction.”

Goodmark, the law professor and expert on gender violence, said: “Various forms of violence often don’t have visible injuries. Strangulation doesn’t always leave visible injuries. The kind of stroking she’s discussing doesn’t leave visible injuries. but…if she had been punched all over her body in the way that was described here, there would have been marks. And I cannot imagine that prosecutors would not have had pictures of those injuries, because they had pictures of the other injuries.”

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty/Kentucky Commonwealth Attorney’s Association

In 2018, Muse announced a run for Commonwealth Attorney for Kentucky’s 14th Judicial Circuit, which covers Bourbon, Scott, and Woodford counties. All are small counties in north central Kentucky; the entire population of Bourbon County is just over 20,000 people. Muse ran against Keith Eardley, one of the prosecutors in the Covington case. The winner would replace Shaw, the other prosecutor in the Covington case, who was retiring.

A “Choose Muse November 6th for your next Commonwealth Attorney” election mailer added new and more violent details of the 2006 incident. “Covington forced Sharon to drive out of town and he tried to rape and kill her,” the mailer, accompanied by a mugshot of Covington, read. “He slashed at her throat with a knife, bending the blade as she escaped, running into the road to find help.”

“She really pushes herself as a voice for victims—a criminal attorney who herself was a victim,” Browning said. Muse told local media that three weeks after the incident with Covington, she decided to run for prosecutor.

In late 2018, Muse was elected as the Commonwealth Attorney for the 14th Judicial Circuit, defeating Eardley with nearly 70 percent of the vote. In early 2019, when Muse was sworn in as Commonwealth Attorney, she said, “The last thing I wanted to see was victims having to go through what I had been through.”

In 2020, Skyhorse published Muse’s memoir, Kidnapped By a Client: The Incredible True Story of an Attorney’s Fight for Justice. It is a hybrid real-life thriller, Christian inspirational memoir, and how-to for victims. The book received a starred review by Publisher’s Weekly, which said, “This gripping, fast-paced account leaves the reader wondering: could this happen to me?”

The accounts of the alleged abduction by Covington in Kidnapped By a Client differed substantially from her 911 calls, her statements to law enforcement, and her trial testimony. In her book, Muse wrote of the attack: “I could see the muscles in his right arm flex as he sawed at the side of my neck—where my carotid artery pulsed. I could feel the cold of the steel as it cut my neck and the warmth of the blood running down my breast.” That sort of severe injury was not corroborated by photographs or Muse’s medical records, Covington’s motion argued.

After Kidnapped By a Client was published, Eardley and Shaw, the prosecutors on the Covington case, brought the inconsistencies in Muse’s account to Kentuckys Department of Public Advocacy.

In July 2022, Eardley and Shaw signed sworn affidavits regarding “conflicting evidentiary details” from Muse. Eardley said injuries Muse said she endured—including “large chunks of hair… ripped from her skull… bloody wounds on her chest… deep cuts and extensive bruising”—were not in line with the evidence introduced at trial. Eardley also said that her victim-impact statement said she could not use one of her arms and “could not walk unassisted,” yet her book describes attending an April 8, 2006, Etta James concert in Louisville—one night after the alleged attack.

In their motion, Covington’s attorneys called Kidnapped By a Client “a choose your own adventure book wherein Mrs. Muse-Johnson gets to embellish and make up whatever story she wants to reach the conclusion she desires.”

Muse has cried foul, with her attorney dismissing Eardley’s concerns about the memoir as politically-motivated attacks. “Those prosecutors, Gordie Shaw and Keith Eardley, sparked this investigation against their political opponent, Ms. Muse Johnson, after she 1) defeated Eardley in the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney of the 14th Judicial Circuit in 2018 and 2) embarrassed them both for pointing out in her book, which was published three years ago, the ample mistakes they made preparing for and at trial,” Meyer wrote in his recent filing.

But Carissa Byrne Hessick, a University of North Carolina law professor and director of its Prosecutors and Politics Project, told The Daily Beast, “I do not think your average lawyer is going to sign a false affidavit, no matter their personal animus. They know what the consequences are. That doesn’t strike me as likely to happen. At the same time, I would hope that people who’ve been accused of misconduct, no matter the motivations, would be able to answer [a complaint] on its merits…. They want to fight about, ‘Oh, it’s political.’ The real question is, ‘Did the person engage in misconduct?’”

Eardley told The Daily Beast that he read Muse’s book and was surprised by the many new details of the incident he had not heard before. “I read the book when it came out and there were things that didn’t match up with the trial,” he said. “So, I contacted my former boss Gordie Shaw and I lent him a copy of the book, and we discussed, and we had an ethical obligation to report it.”

In her book, Muse also criticizes Eardley and Shaw, who she said made “many potentially fatal errors” in the case, including a “failure to prepare [her] for trial,” not putting forth evidence of sexual abuse, and not charging Covington with attempted rape or attempted murder.

Like Shaw, Eardley stressed that Muse wasn’t seriously injured in the incident and that Covington received a life sentence.

“Mrs. Muse wasn’t killed, thank goodness. She wasn’t raped, she wasn’t seriously injured, and the bad guy is doing a life sentence,” Eardley said. “I think Mr. Shaw and I did a great job.”

Skyhorse Publishing did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

“What’s unusual here, of course, is the DA as a crime victim, whose story doesn’t match up with some of the facts,” said Daniel S. Medwed, Northeastern University law professor and author of Barred: Why the Innocent Can’t Get Out of Prison. “And you have prosecutors who are saying, ‘Look, there’s some inconsistencies in her account.’ The idea of prosecutors kind of turning on each other, that’s a pretty remarkable piece of it.”

In November, Kentucky’s Department Of Public Advocacy filed the motion to vacate the conviction of Covington due to what they said were multiple inconsistencies in Muse’s story. “She was not partially naked. She was not bloody,” the motion reads. “The markings shown on Mrs. Muse-Johnson’s chest are consistent with Mr. Covington grabbing her arm when she was exiting the car.”

“We now have an individual who definitely lied to police officers and during her testimony, who is now an elected position in Kentucky,” Browning said. “And there are numerous issues that have popped up through her time in that position.”

In Muse’s ‘by the numbers’ infographic, she declared, ‘It is 100{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} guaranteed he will come back to kill me if he’s released.’

Byrne Hessick, the law professor, said that “when prosecutors are trying to prove perjury claims or false accusation claims… the easy way to win it is through factual inconsistency. You don’t have to prove what the truth is—only that both statements can’t be true. This looks like one of those situations. She either wrote a book in which she is saying stuff that is false, or made false statements as a victim of crime.”

There are other ethical issues beyond the book. In the spring of 2021, Muse married Robert G. Johnson, the judge who sentenced Covington (she now goes by both Sharon Muse and Sharon Muse-Johnson). There is no indication they were seeing one another during Covington’s trial. But Johnson once worked as an Assistant Commonwealth Attorney in the office his wife leads. In 2022, Johnson ran for Circuit Court Judge, raising concerns of a potential conflict of interest if he were to win. He did not win.

Johnson said that if he was elected, he would handle all the circuit’s civil cases, while another judge would handle its criminal cases.

“A concern about a judge and the Commonwealth’s Attorney is the appearance of impropriety in any cases in his court,” Medwed said. “Especially in small counties, it would presumably crop up from time to time. Lawyers marry each other a lot. A judge might marry a prosecutor. What I think is probably the result is that the judge would have to disclose that… you are ruling on things that affect your wife’s livelihood.”

In 2022, 14th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Brian Privett sent a letter to Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron alleging that Muse and Johnson engaged in “possibly criminal” conduct by using public resources to film a reality TV pilot. Kenyon Meyer, an attorney for Muse, said Privett’s claims were false. But Georgetown Police Chief Michael Bosse confirmed a shoot took place: “There was an hour-and-a-half to two hour filming of two officers playing the roles of detectives in an idea or concept that had to do with the relationship between police and prosecutors.” In a written statement to Georgetown News-Graphic last year, Meyer said Muse “was interviewed by a production company who wanted her to consider developing some type of concept. She never received any compensation, and no show was ever developed.”

In the last chapter of Kidnapped By a Client, there is a warning to readers that Covington—whose name is changed to “Larry Morrison” in the book—is eligible for probation in 2026.

Meyer told The Daily Beast that “my recollection is that there was no reality TV show.”

Privett also accused Muse of putting too many people on grand juries, tipping the scale for returning an indictment. Investigations into Privett’s complaints were handled by Kentucky AG Cameron—who made national news when he oversaw the grand jury in 2020 that did not indict the officers who killed Breonna Taylor, who were later criminally charged by the U.S. Department of Justice. Cameron recommended the dismissal of approximately 160 indictments because of Muse’s mistakes with grand juries, including two murder indictments and a child rape indictment. In the end, however, Cameron determined that there was no criminal wrongdoing by Muse.

Privett’s own record is not free of blemishes: After he resigned as circuit judge in January 2022, he received an unrelated public reprimand that November for exchanging “flirtatious and sexual text messages” with an employee in 2018.

In the last chapter of Kidnapped By a Client, there is a warning to readers that Covington—whose name is changed to “Larry Morrison” in the book—is eligible for probation in 2026.

Browning explained that when Covington is up for parole, Muse’s statements about him—even contradictory ones—will be taken into account. That includes “the victim-impact statement… and all the other statements that she has released to the board,” Browning said. “So, within that includes facts that she did not testify to and might not be true.”

Muse, meanwhile, has issued ominous forecasts about what she thinks will happen if Covington is paroled. In Muse’s “by the numbers” infographic, she declared, “It is 100{e421c4d081ed1e1efd2d9b9e397159b409f6f1af1639f2363bfecd2822ec732a} guaranteed he will come back to kill me if he’s released.”

That Kidnapped By a Client may help Covington get released from prison exemplifies the problems with the recent explosion of true crime in the TV, podcasting, and publishing industries, according to critics of and experts on the genre.

“True crime takes the worst aspects of the criminal legal system, trivializes them, and repackages them as entertainment for people with absolute disregard to the damage that’s done to folks who don’t want their stories told in that way,” Goodmark said. “I am less troubled by narratives that are told by the victims themselves, because they have the ability to make determinations about what they want to make public and what they don’t. But with that comes a responsibility to be truthful and to have your claims hold up to scrutiny”.

Elon Green, author of Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York and once a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review on media issues, told The Daily Beast that prosecutors should be held to an especially high standard.

“This is a situation where more skepticism than usual is warranted, because prosecutors, by their very nature, are very good at telling stories,” he said.

“And they don’t have to always adhere to the truth, right? Their job is to obtain a conviction.”

Green mentioned Central Park Five prosecutor Linda Fairstein: “These are people who have the ability to send innocent people to jail. So they can absolutely convince a reader to believe a memoir.” After Anthony Broadwater was exonerated in 2021 for the rape of author Alice Sebold—whose memoir Lucky recounted her 1981 sexual assault—she apologized to him.

“I’m talking about the nuts and bolts of true crime: Is this thing true? Good and bad, that is the bar that the true crime generally clears,” Green said.

Goodmark said she “can see an argument that could be made that Muse-Johnson should not be criticized for telling her story. But having put that story out into the public sphere in a way that’s inconsistent with what prosecutors understood to be the facts, what the picture shows to be the facts, and with this kind of the evolution to the story over time, I don’t think it’s irresponsible to ask her to answer for that.”