HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Phillip Barnett had a big smile on his face when he exited the Cabell County Courthouse Tuesday morning. He knew a nearly 15-year ordeal was over.
A special prosecutor officially dismissed murder charges against Barnett, his brother Nathan Barnett and Justin Black in connection with the 2002 death of Deanna Crawford.
DNA evidence, tested in the years after the original convictions, prove the defendants didn’t murder Crawford. A fourth defendant, Brian Dement, has had his sentence modified.
Barnett told MetroNews Tuesday represented an ending and a beginning.
“It’s been a long tough road. I’m just glad our attorneys and everybody that’s been a part of this case to prove our evidence put in the hard work to get us where we are,” Barnett said. “I just want to put this behind me and get back to living a normal life, raising my children, without having to worry in the back of mind about all of this.”
The original convictions have been under review for the last few years. Barnett served 10 years in prison before being released on bail in 2018 as the work by the Innocence Project ramped up.
“Today is a great day for the Barnett family; Philip and Nathan’s names are finally cleared. The DNA results from the crime scene evidence, which excluded Philip and Nathan and matched a convicted sex offender, prove what the Barnetts have always known: They are innocent and had nothing to do with this murder, ” said Adnan Sultan, staff attorney with the Innocence Project.
Sultan told MetroNews the Barnett family never gave up.
“The final determination was our clients belief and conviction in their innocence, not giving up and fighting this case to the very end. I think that ultimately made all of the difference in the world,” Sultan said.
Nathan Barnett was released in 2015, Black in 2018 and Dement was scheduled to be released from prison Tuesday not long after Special Prosecutor Thomas Plymale dismissed all charges.
“This is really a sad story that a family, two sons, lost almost 15 years having this hanging over their heads. You think about Phillip’s mother Tammy having to deal with unimaginable pain over having two kids wrongly convicted,” Sultan said.
Crawford’s body was found in 2002. She had been beaten, strangled and likely raped. There were no arrests until five years later when Dement, who was picked up on a separate charge, gave conflicting statements that implicated himself and the others. There was never any physical evidence linking them to the crime.
The 2018 results of DNA testing showed a match between DNA found on a cigarette at the scene and semen found on Crawford’s pants. The DNA didn’t match the Barnetts, Black or Dement. It instead matched a man who lived in Huntington at the time of the crime who had been convicted previously of sexual assault.
Sultan said what happened to the Barnett brothers and the others is wrong but a reality of the system.
“That’s what we’re always looking into. That’s why the work we do is really important. It proves the system is fallible and the post-conviction work we do is critical,” Sultan said.
Melissa Giggenbach of the West Virginia Innocence Project said Tuesday they continue to actively investigate a large number of cases.
“We pick from those 15 or 20 cases that we actively work and file motions and post conviction decisions on behalf of,” Giggenbach said.