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UPDATE | Trial date set for trio previously cleared of wrongdoing in murder case

(WSAZ)
Published: May. 31, 2018 at 6:36 PM EDT
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UPDATE 10/29/19 @ 19 a.m.

Three men previously cleared of wrongdoing in a murder case will go back to trial.

Back in May, Cabell County Judge Ferguson vacated convictions for brothers Phillip and Nathaniel Barnett, as well as Justin Black, due to new DNA evidence. He also ruled this decision does not speak to their guilt or innocence.

The trio, along with another man, Brett Dement, were convicted in connection with the death of Deanna Crawford in Cabell County in 2002.

Dement's conviction stands.

At the hearing in May, Judge Ferguson told prosecutors they would have 90 days to decide if they wanted to take the case back to trial.

Tuesday, a trial date was set for April 21, 2020.

Cabell County Prosecutor Corky Hammers was recused from the case and a special prosecutor will be brought in.

The trio is set to be back in court in March 2020.

Keep checking WSAZ.com and the WSAZ app for the latest information.

UPDATE 5/1/19 @ 5:55 p.m.

Three convicted murderers who have always said they're innocent have been cleared of any wrongdoing, thanks to DNA evidence.

A judge tossed the convictions Wednesday morning in connection with the death of Deanna Crawford in Cabell County in 2002. He did it in a way attorneys tell us they've never seen before.

The courtroom was filled with attorneys Wednesday morning representing four men connected to the death of Deanna Crawford: Justin Black, Phillip Barnett and his brother Nathaniel Barnett. The attorney for Brian Dement was also present.

"I’m living on Cloud 9 right now,” Black said.

What was expected was two days of testimony going over new DNA evidence found at the crime scene, connected to a convicted sex offender named Timothy Smith. His semen was found on Crawford’s pants, as well as a cigarette butt found at the crime scene near Hickory Ridge.

Instead, Cabell County Judge Alfred Ferguson surprised everyone by deciding no hearing was needed.

Instead, he ruled on 14 points immediately for the three men who are already out of prison.

Most importantly, he vacated their conviction and gave prosecutors 90 days to decide if they wanted to go back to trial. He also ruled this decision does not speak to their guilt or innocence as well as Smith's.

"I've never experienced anything like I've experienced this morning,” said Josh Tepfel, Black’s attorney who is with the Exoneration Project. “It speaks to the power of the DNA evidence that we had."

"I didn't expect it this quickly. I'm very, very happy," Black said.

After that bombshell, it was Dement’s turn.

He was the prosecution's key witness, both in the 2008 conviction of the three and, when judges reversed the convictions in 2010, the three taking Kennedy pleas in 2011, where they maintained their innocence but said the evidence was enough to convict.

The judge said the DNA evidence changes nothing about Dement's case.

"His case to me, even though he's saying is different for the other three, because he always maintained their innocence. Your client has always maintained his guilty until the filed the petition," said Judge Ferguson.

Sitting in the front row, as always, were Deanna's parents, Terry and Angie Crawford.

"It's not something you ever get over," said Angie. "We want to make sure Deanna isn't forgotten in any of this. They still have the holidays and their family still has them. We go to the cemetery."

"By no means do we believe it exonerates the four original people," Terry added.

They've never forgotten Deanna's smile. She was just 21 years old when she was strangled.

"She loved life. She had this laugh that was infectious," said Angie with a smile.

But her story is like so many other parents. Her daughter’s bad decisions and the wrong crowd leading to drug addiction and prostitution to pay for her habit.

While they're not surprised by Wednesday's outcome, 17 years later, they’re still haunted by not knowing why.

"That's our nightmare we will live with till we draw our last breath," said Angie.

She even said she still thinks Deanna will call sometime.

"She could have turned her life around. But what the monster did to her, leaving her out in the elements, we weren't able to have that moment to where we could at least say goodbye to her in person."

But now, it's Black and the Barnetts able to breathe a little easier.

They were free to walk out of court on their own recognizance while Dement, the key witness shown to be unreliable, remains in prison orange and DNA pointing to someone else.

"The only obvious answer is there can't be a retrial," Tepfer said.

"I’m still in awe,” Black added.

But the Crawfords feel differently.

"Today is not an ending, just a beginning. We're prepared to see that through," said Angie.

Both Barnetts and their family declined to comment Wednesday.

Cabell County Prosecutor Corky Hammers will be meeting with the special prosecutor appointed in this case to figure out what to do next. The state has until Aug. 1 to decide.


UPDATE 5/1/19 @ 2:58 p.m.

There was a major twist Wednesday in a murder case. DNA evidence points to a new suspect, and the convictions have been tossed out for three men who already served time for the crime.

The case is the death of Deanna Crawford whose body was found near Hickory Ridge in a rural area of Cabell County in August of 2002.

Three men have been punished for the crime twice already. Brothers Phillip and Nathaniel Barnett, as well as Justin Black, were convicted in 2008. Their convictions were reversed in 2010, but they took Kennedy pleas the next year.

As of Wednesday morning, those sentences have been vacated.

Judge Alfred Ferguson gave the prosecution 90 days to determine if they will retry the case. The judge said new DNA evidence points to another suspect -- a man named Timothy Smith. Ferguson said the evidence is enough to entitle the Barnett brothers and Black to a new trial.

However, the judge says this does not prove in anyway the guilt or innocence of the original suspects. All three men have been released upon their own recognizance.

A fourth man who went to prison for the murder, Brian Dement, remains behind bars. Unlike the other three men who maintained their innocence, Dement pleaded guilty in 2007. Investigators say he was the key witness who put all four in prison.

UPDATE 10/25/18 @ 10:50 p.m.

A man who admitted to his role in a murder more than a decade ago could soon be getting out of prison.

In 2007, Brian Dement pleaded guilty to murder in the death of Deanna Crawford in Cabell County. He was sentenced to 30 years.

On Thursday, Dement’s attorneys asked the judge to set bond so he can be released after new DNA evidence emerged earlier this year, pointing to a new suspect in the case.

The judge says he will decide whether to grant Dement’s request for bond next week.

Dement is also asking his conviction be vacated and for a new trial.

A hearing on those motions is set for February.

Crawford's body was found in 2002 in a rural area of Cabell County near Hickory Ridge.


UPDATE 8/9/18 @ 11:25 p.m.

A man convicted of murder, who is hoping new DNA evidence linking another man to the murder scene will exonerate him, was let out of jail Thursday.

Philip Barnett was released on $50,000 bond from the Parkersburg Correctional Facility.

Bond was set after Philip Barnett's attorneys introduced new DNA in the 2002 murder case. Deanna Crawford was the victim of that crime. Her body was found in a rural area of Cabell County near Hickory Ridge.

The Innocence Project has been helping Barnett, who has always maintained his innocence.

"We are grateful that Mr. Barnett was released today and are hopeful, given the strength of the DNA evidence, that the District Attorney will continue to move quickly to vacate the convictions against Mr. Barnett and the others who served many years for a crime they didn't commit," said Karen Thompson, Senior Staff Attorney with the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

Another hearing in this case is expected at the end of August. The case now lies in the hands of the Cabell County Prosecutor's Office.

Prosecutor Corky Hammers said at the hearing in May that the case against the four people charged in the murder is strong.

Thursday night, he reiterated that point.

"Even though the Barnett brothers entered pleas to killing Miss Crawford in 2002, I have been working diligently with the West Virginia state police to make sure those pleas secured prior to my administration were corroborated by the evidence in this case given newly discovered DNA evidence of a possible alternate suspect."


ORIGINAL STORY 5/31/18

New DNA technology has given investigators a new suspect's name in the murder case of Deanna Crawford. Her body was found in 2002 in a rural area of Cabell County near Hickory Ridge.

Three men have spent years behind bars for the crime: brothers Phillip and Nathaniel Barnett and Justin Black.

Prosecutors tell us they don't believe the new evidence changes their case, but Barnett’s family says this proves what their loved ones have been saying all along.

The Barnett family sat hopeful in court.

"I never thought for a second that my son had anything to do with this,” said father Philip Barnett.

But their wait continues, even as Nathaniel Barnett looked on. Nathaniel was sentenced to 15 years for his role in the murder but has since been released in 2016.

Phillip is still in prison.

Black’s attorney Josh Tepfer said Black is being released on parole next week after the parole board had a chance to review the new DNA evidence.

All three men have always maintained their innocence.

"We are committed to showing these three men were wrongly committed," Tepfer said.

New DNA technology has connected a new name to the crime scene: Timothy Smith. Smith is a convicted sex offender from Lawrence County, Ohio, who is currently back in an Ohio prison after not updating his address as a sex offender.

Smith’s semen was found on Crawford's leopard print pants left beside her decomposing body, as well as a cigarette butt at the crime scene.

At the time, DNA technology wasn’t even able to recover any DNA from the pants, much less attach a name to it.

Defense attorneys maintain the prosecution's case rests on the jury believing an unreliable witness who gave three different confessions when he was confronted by investigators years later.

"People make mistakes. What doesn't make mistakes is science and DNA,” Tepfer said. “DNA is the great equalizer, not in every case, but it is in this one."

But Cabell County Prosecutor Corky Hammers tells us he believes he has a strong case, even with the new DNA evidence.

"We still feel the jury convicted the right people. The right people pleaded guilty in court years ago for these crimes.

He said his office and state police have a duty to follow up on the new lead.

"The only thing it would do is change my mind. I don't see it doing that,” Hammers said. “I don't think we'll find anything that will change my mind about the conviction already in place."

It’s a point which frustrates and angers the Barnett family.

"I miss them. I love them. I helped raise them,” said aunt Kelly Nichols. “They weren't raised to be living the life they're had to live. They're ruined their lives."

Philip Barnett said he’s thought about all the lost time especially for his son Phillip who has four children of his own.

"Yeah, I think about it all the time."

Now there's three more months to think.

Judge Ferguson set a hearing date for Aug. 30 to consider Phillip Barnett's case, as well as the possibility of vacating the other sentences.

"I don't see what the holdup is. My son is sitting in jail for something he didn’t do,” said Philip Barnett.

After Black’s pending release on parole, Phillip Barnett will be the only one of the trio still in prison. He's currently set to be released in July 2021.

The men have been working with attorneys with the Innocence Project for two years to clear the records of all three men.

"Our clients are strong,” said Tepfer, who’s with the Exoneration Project in Chicago. “You have to be strong to survive as innocent people in prison for as long as they have. They're wonderful people. We care about them and we're going to keep fighting for them until this is resolved."

Nathaniel declined to speak with us Thursday, as did Crawford’s family.

According to court documents, the men were indicted in 2007, almost five years after Crawford’s murder, who was a known prostitute. They were all convicted in 2008 with Nathaniel and Black getting 40-year sentences and Phillip getting a 36-year sentence.

Her body had been found on Aug. 8, 2002, by a logging crew. Although a friend had last seen her on Aug. 4, her body was so decomposed, it took her fingerprints to identify her. She had been strangled.

In 2010, the state Supreme Court reversed the convictions for Nathaniel and Phillip because of issues in the initial trial. Then, in January 2011, both brothers took Kennedy pleas, acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict them in a new trial but not pleading guilty.

Phillip was sentenced to seven to 25 years and Nathaniel was sentenced to 15 years. Both were maximum sentences.

According to court records which have been newly unsealed, private investigators have talked to Timothy Smith’s ex-wife who remembers Smith coming home in 2002 with blood on his hands and money with blood on them that he could not explain. Soon after she remembers seeing the murder coverage on television. She also said he used to go out every night, but he stopped going out for about a month around the time of the crime.

Smith has told investigators he doesn’t know Crawford or anything about the location on Hickory Ridge.