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Lawsuit: FBI failed to protect man slain amid Tennessee political scandal decades ago

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The son of a key federal witness who authorities say was killed decades ago with the help of a former Tennessee governor's administration during the state's largest political scandal is suing the FBI, saying it failed to protect his father.

Marrell Graham filed the federal lawsuit this week claiming that the United States' actions led to the deprivation of “the loss of income, services, protection, care, assistance ... counsel, and advice of his father.”

Details surrounding the movie-like case were first revealed in 2021 after law enforcement officials spent more than 40 years chipping away at the case of Samuel Pettyjohn's killing.

Ultimately, officials unveiled a wild scandal showing that Pettyjohn, an ally of union boss Jimmy Hoffa, was gunned down in 1979 in downtown Chattanooga after testifying about corrupt officials selling prison pardons. The slaying took place during the early phases of Tennessee’s notorious “cash-for-clemency” scandal, as federal investigators were examining whether persons in the governor’s office were exchanging cash for parole.

Pettyjohn became involved in the investigation after he was subpoenaed to testify about the matter. He eventually agreed to cooperate with FBI agents, even going as far as providing a list of people who allegedly made payments to the governor’s office for the early release of certain prisoners.

However, officials said, fear over how much Pettyjohn knew led to several sources hiring a suspected hitman — Ed Alley, a known bank robber who died in 2005 in federal prison. Former Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said in 2021 that those sources included an undisclosed third party who paid some of the contract money on behalf of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton's administration. They said the estimated total price for the killing was between $25,000 and $50,000.

According to officials, Alley donned a wig and blackface to throw authorities off the trail.

A spokesperson for the FBI didn’t immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment regarding the lawsuit.

“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally, as well as the state level, and individuals didn’t like that and so individuals hired someone to murder him,” Pinkston said at the time. “Here we are some 42 years later.”

In 2021, a Hamilton County grand jury concluded that if Alley were alive today, he would be charged with first-degree premeditated murder of Pettyjohn.

Meanwhile, Pinkston is no longer in elected office and is representing Marrell in the case.

The “cash-for-clemency” scandal ultimately led to the ousting of Gov. Blanton, who was never indicted in the investigation — although three of his aides were. However, questions lingered about the extent to which the governor’s administration actively worked to thwart the investigation.

The 12-page federal lawsuit alleges that the FBI has refused to disclose any information surrounding Pettyjohn's death after local law enforcement publicized their findings two years ago.

“As a direct and proximate result of the intentional, reckless and/or negligent actions and omissions of the defendant as set forth above, the plaintiffs father, Samuel Pettyjohn, suffered a wrongful death,” the lawsuit claims. “As a surviving child, Graham can seek recovery for the wrongful death of his father, including the monetary value of the decedent’s life.”