The Republican candidate for Kentucky attorney general, Russell Coleman, is campaigning on a promise to be tough on crime, particularly crimes against children. But before running for attorney general, he served as U.S. attorney for the western district of Kentucky—and a closer look at his track record there shows a frightening laxity regarding sex offenders.
Coleman’s campaign comes at a time when state attorneys general exert increasing influence over how laws are implemented and prosecuted. If he wins in 2024, he would be in charge of enforcing both state and federal laws in Kentucky.
When Coleman unveiled his campaign for attorney general in May, he highlighted a commitment to be tough on crime, a popular Republican talking point. “My priority is the same as President Trump’s: Make America Safe Again by stopping the people who are poisoning our communities with deadly drugs and using technology to target our kids, parents and grandparents,” he said in his announcement. “As Attorney General, I will never stop working to protect our families, uphold our conservative values, and protect our Constitutional freedoms.”
He has repeatedly stressed his commitment to “protect Kentucky families” and support police efforts to put criminals in jail, citing his past experience as U.S. attorney. Donald Trump appointed Coleman as U.S. attorney in 2017, and Coleman served in that office until January 2021. During his tenure, Coleman acted as the area’s chief law enforcement officer. Part of his job included ensuring that laws were “faithfully executed,” as well as setting sentencing recommendations in plea agreements.
But while serving as U.S. attorney, Coleman offered at least 48 plea agreements to people accused of exploitation of or sexual offenses against children. Nearly half of those agreements included dismissing certain charges or recommended sentences far weaker than those the judge ultimately issued, the latter of which rarely happens.
One of the most egregious examples is the case of United States v. Leasor. In 2018, Brian Leasor was found in possession of a tablet that had a search history that included multiple terms related to child pornography and sexual exploitation. Investigators didn’t find any saved images on the tablet, but the websites that Leasor had visited displayed images of completely naked children as young as 3 or 4.
At the time, Leasor was already serving a 10-year supervised release sentence after he pleaded guilty to one count of receiving child pornography in 2005. He had served 70 months in jail.
Leasor was charged in July 2019 with attempted receipt of child pornography and accessing with intent to view child pornography. Coleman offered him a deal: In exchange for Leasor pleading guilty, the charge of attempted receipt of child pornography would be dropped. Leasor would go to prison for 10 years and then be free to go. A judge sentenced Leasor in January 2021 to 10 years followed by a lifetime of supervised release. Coleman’s plea agreement had made no mention of supervision after jail.
Another plea deal that Coleman oversaw was in the case of United States v. Taylor. In January 2018, an officer visited Lawrence William Taylor, who had been convicted in 2004 of online enticement of a minor. He was sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment and five years’ supervised release. The officer discovered Taylor was living with a woman and her 11-year-old child, a violation of Taylor’s supervised release.
A week later, the officer was able to search Taylor’s phone, and found child pornography and sexually explicit cartoons of children. Taylor was charged in July that year with one count of possession of child pornography.
Coleman offered Taylor a plea agreement for 10 years in prison, followed by just five years of supervised release. A judge sentenced Taylor in January 2019 to 10 years in prison and a lifetime of supervised release.
In another case, United States v. Beauchamp, Coleman’s deal was even weaker. Steven Beauchamp was arrested in August 2017 for sending sexually explicit images to someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl but was actually an undercover police officer. Beauchamp also admitted to officers that he had asked the “girl” for nude selfies.
Beauchamp was charged in December that year with knowingly attempting to employ, use, persuade, induce, entice, and coerce any minor to engage in sexually explicit conduct for the purpose of producing any visual depiction; knowingly attempting to persuade, induce, and entice an individual who had not attained the age of 18 years to engage in sexual activity for which a person may be charged with a criminal offense; and distribution of child pornography.
Coleman offered Beauchamp a plea agreement for between 15 and 17.5 years in prison and no supervised release. A judge sentenced Beauchamp in July 2018 to 17.5 years in prison and 20 years of supervised release.
It is incredibly rare for judges to disagree with plea agreements. Judges will occasionally reject plea agreements if they believe the deal does not sufficiently address the nature of the crime, the victim’s rights, or the public interest. But during Coleman’s time as U.S. attorney, he offered 21 plea agreements that judges rejected as too weak.
“This complete distortion of Russell Coleman’s record is a totally false smear that shows a lack of understanding of how to be a prosecutor,” Coleman’s campaign spokesman, Kevin Grout, told The New Republic. “Russell Coleman has and always will throw the book at violent criminals—especially those who harm children.”
Coleman has fully embraced the Republican claim that the United States is falling into a state of lawlessness, with violent crime on the rise and Democratic leaders unable or unwilling to do anything about it. He has repeatedly blamed “woke prosecutors” for the rise in crime.
“Woke prosecutors cannot create their own version of right and wrong. Families will never truly be safe if progressive officials can look the other way when a law doesn’t align with their political beliefs,” he said in a statement last September.
In reality, violent crime in Kentucky dropped 10 percent in 2022, according to a state law enforcement report released in July. This is a larger drop than the national average decrease in violent crime, according to another July report by the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan research group.
Coleman’s campaign isn’t dangerous just because of his misleading claims about being tough on crime and child exploitation. His campaign also embraces a lot of language that Republican leaders have used to push back on abortion and LGBTQ rights—two areas where attorney generals have a lot of power.
His campaign website mentions several times that he is “pro-life” and “pro-family”—buzzwords that Republicans use to deny people needed health care such as abortions or gender-affirming care. GOP leaders insist that they are looking out for the well-being of children and family values.
Since the start of the year, Republican attorneys general have begun to exert outsize influence over these issues. Walgreens was forced to stop dispensing abortion medication in certain states after almost two dozen attorneys general threatened legal action against the pharmacy chain.
Separately, Missouri state Attorney General Andrew Bailey drew widespread condemnation when he introduced an emergency rule in mid-April that would ban lifesaving gender-affirming care for transgender minors and adults. Critics argued that Bailey vastly overstepped his position by implementing the rule instead of letting a bill move through the state legislature. A judge blocked the rule, but a law to the same effect was implemented in August.
If Coleman wins, he will have the same ability to force through rules that affect issues he doesn’t like—all while pretending to be “tough on crime.” And if the Republican gubernatorial candidate Daniel Cameron wins too, then the GOP would control Kentucky’s entire government.