Justices award new trial to brothers in murder case

By Steve Korris | Jul 15, 2010

CHARLESTON –- Brothers Phillip and Nathaniel Barnett, facing sentences of 36 and 40 years for the murder of Deanna Crawford, have won a new trial.

The Supreme Court of Appeals ruled July 13 that Cabell Circuit Judge John Cummings improperly excluded evidence about the credibility of witness Brian Dement.

"Dement was the state's sole witness to testify at trial who could place the appellants at Ms. Crawford's murder," the Justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.

"Alternative accounts by Dement as to how the murder occurred, including who was present, are important not simply to challenge the credibility of Dement for truthfulness, but also to allow the jury to specifically consider and weigh each of the versions which Dement has asserted," they wrote.

Another judge will conduct the new trial because Cummings has retired.

Crawford died in 2002, at age 21, of manual strangulation. Someone found her body in an abandoned barn on Hickory Ridge.

Officers found evidence at the scene, but it didn't lead to a suspect. Further investigation yielded no clues.

In 2007, Dement told an uncle he participated in the crime.

The uncle hid a recording device and coaxed Dement to repeat his story. Dement implicated Justin Black and the Barnett brothers.

The uncle gave the recording to law enforcement officers, who picked up Dement.

He signed two statements and gave a third on tape.

Each statement contained facts inconsistent with the other two.

Grand jurors reviewed the statements and indicted Dement, Black and the Barnetts.

Cummings severed the cases and prepared for four separate trials.

Dement would have stood trial first, but he pleaded guilty to second degree murder and agreed to testify against the others. Cummings imposed a 30-year sentence.

Private investigator Greg Cook, working for Nathaniel Barnett, pulled yet another story from Dement in an interview on tape at Western Regional Jail.

Dement told Cook he tried to go against his statement but his lawyers and Cummings wouldn't let him.

Dement said police came to his house, handcuffed him, and put guns to his head.

He told Cook, "We are all innocent."

In 2008, another private investigator taped another statement.

At Black's trial, Cummings allowed his lawyer to cross examine Dement about inconsistencies in his statements.

Jurors convicted Black of second degree murder, and Cummings imposed a 40-year sentence.

The Barnett brothers asked for a joint trial, and Cummings granted it.

At trial, Dement testified that Nathaniel Barnett invited him to a party at the home of Black's mother.

He said he walked to the party and knew several people there.

He said he, Black, the Barnetts and Crawford went for a ride, with Black driving.

Phillip Barnett struck Crawford, he said, and Black stopped the car.

Dement said he "got out of the car, went to the passenger side and grabbed her out by her throat." He said, "It was just a reaction."

He said he dragged her into woods while he and the others struck and kicked her.

He said he left the area and hid in weeds because he didn't want to participate further.

He said Black and the Barnetts returned to the car and drove off without him.

He said he found Crawford, checked for a pulse, and found none.

He said he walked to Morrison's Market, called for a cab, and went home.

He admitted to prosecutor Chris Chiles that he gave inconsistent statements.

Chiles introduced one of the statements Dement signed as evidence.

Defense lawyer Daniel James of Keyser asked Cummings, out of the hearing of the jury, for permission to play the tape of Cook's interview with Dement.

Cummings said, "He definitely admitted he lied."

He said, "The impeachment evidence you had of playing the recording was improper to be played because it was not an issue that he lied, so your matter is on the record."

Jurors convicted the Barnetts of second degree murder, and Cummings sentenced them.

Black and the Barnetts appealed, on different grounds. Black lost, and the Barnetts won.

The Justices decided the brothers deserved a new trial because, "Cross examination is the engine of truth."

They found a vast difference between Dement's testimony and his earlier statements.

They wrote that a recording allows jurors to assess voice inflection and other factors bearing on credibility.

They held that if an error impairs the presentation of the best means of defense, they will usually find that the error had a substantial and injurious effect on the jury.

Nicholas James of Keyser also represented the Barnett brothers.

On appeal, assistant attorney general Christopher Smith represented the state.

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