Parents open up to discuss exoneration fight of sons

More than two years since attorneys returned to the courtroom asking for new testing

By Courtney Hessler
The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — While very religious, Tammy Barnett hasn’t walked into a church very often since her sons were imprisoned more than a decade ago after being convicted of murder.

When one son was granted bond recently because of new information gathered by the Innocence and Exoneration projects, Barnett raced from Georgia to Parkersburg, West Virginia, to see him walk out of the facility. But she felt called to make a stop along the way when she spotted an active church service.

It was there that she, for the first time publicly, told her story of being a mother who lost her only two sons because of a man’s retracted statement for a cold case murder — a case that is now being re-investigated after new DNA technology has pointed to a convicted child rapist as the killer.

Her sons, Philip Scott, 37, and Nathaniel, were convicted in the 2002 murder of 21-year-old Deanna L. Crawford, a young mother. They were convicted along with Justin Keith Black, 34, and Brian Emerson Dement after Dement blamed the group for the death in 2007.

In interviewing with The Herald-Dispatch, the parents of the Barnett brothers said they aren’t seeking to change minds about the case, but instead just hoped to tell their story for the first time in 11 years.


Questionable confession leads to four convictions

After Crawford’s body was discovered on Hickory Ridge Road in Cabell County in 2002, her case went five years without any leads. She had been strangled and beaten to death. Prior to her death, Crawford had attended a party with the four defendants, and her body was found days later.

Dement confessed in 2007 during an eight-hour overnight interrogation regarding another case to being involved in her death — a confession that has since twice been recanted. The four men were convicted in 2007 and 2008.

Philip Barnett was sentenced to serve 40 years, while his brother received a 36-year sentence. A Supreme Court ruling later overturned the convictions because the defense was not able to present evidence of Dement’s inconsistent statements at trial.

The Barnetts and their family were advised not to speak to media about their case, so all that was made public was the prosecutor’s point of view.

“We were taught growing up, you know, respect the law. You have the system,” she said. “I used to believe everything I heard on the news, but when you’re in that situation and you see how things really play out, it turns into a huge disappointment.”

Now able to speak out, Barnett said the statements that convicted her sons were made after poor tactics were executed by state police when interviewing Dement about another case. She said police forced Dement through long, unrecorded interviews while he was under the influence of drugs. Black was also interrogated while being sleep deprived.

According to the Innocence Project, more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement because they thought the outcome would be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.

After the brothers were denied a change of venue in their new trial, they took plea deals. Tammy Barnett said her sons were unable to defend themselves with evidence and were backed into a corner.

After entering Alford pleas to voluntary manslaughter, Philip Barnett was sentenced to seven to 25 years, and Nathaniel received a 15-year sentence. Philip Barnett also pleaded to malicious wounding.

An Alford plea allows for a conviction without a defendant admitting his or her role in the crime. The brothers have always maintained their innocence in the case, and no motive was ever made clear.

Black was convicted by a jury and received a 40-year sentence. He was released on parole in June and is part of the Barnetts’ case seeking exoneration.

Dement pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He is the only one of the four who remains in prison.

Tammy Barnett says she often looks back 10 years ago to think if there were any behavior changes among her sons after the murder, but she can’t remember any.


Time lost

The brothers spent years throughout the prison system. Sometimes they were housed together, but most of the time they were on their own. Nathaniel Barnett was released on parole two years ago, and Philip was released after the court granted him bond, given the new evidence in his case.

In those nearly 12 years, many Barnett family members have died and many birthdays, holidays and family gatherings have been missed, Tammy Barnett said.

“I’ve got a little brother who has Down Syndrome. He’s in the nursing home over here in Point Pleasant,” Philip Sr. said. “He hasn’t been able to walk, talk, eat or drink for going on two years, and he’s 54 years old. And when he saw Philip (after he was released from prison), he actually grinned.”

Philip Sr. said he is also grateful his 90-year-old mother was alive to see the day Philip left the prison.


Innocence and Exoneration projects take the case

A few years ago, the Innocence and Exoneration projects took on the case. The organizations take on cases for those they believe have been wrongfully convicted of various crimes.

Karen Thompson, a senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, represented Philip Barnett, while Valena Beety of the West Virginia Innocence Project represented Nathaniel Barnett. Black is represented by Joshua Tepfer, of the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School.

The case came back to the courtroom in June 2016 when Tepfer asked for new testing to be done with more advanced DNA testing. The Barnett brothers soon joined in.

By February 2018, the testing returned a name for semen found on Crawford’s pants and cigarette butts at the scene, all which implicated a convicted child rapist as the killer.

Investigators worked the case, searching into the background of the man whose name has not been released, Philip Sr. said.

“They’ve done an excellent job that uncovered a lot of evidence that’s actually not just exonerating the boys, but they found the man that’s responsible for this through DNA,” he said. “DNA don’t lie. It don’t never change from the day you’re born to if you live to be 150. DNA stays the same.”

Investigators found the man lived in Huntington at the time of Crawford’s slaying. When interviewed, the man’s wife said in the days before Crawford’s body was found, the man came home with blood on him and bloody money he could not explain.

The woman said his behavior changed. At one point, he told her he had killed someone, and she also said she remembered a friend had threatened to report him for what he had “done to that girl.”

That man was jailed at age 40 after he allegedly raped a 13-year-old Cabell County girl and impregnated her. He is currently incarcerated in Ohio.


A victim remains

While elated at the advancements in their sons’ case, the Barnetts realize there is still a family in pain with the loss of their daughter, who has also missed important family milestones.

At the brothers’ sentencing, her family said she was a mother, big sister, granddaughter, niece and cousin whose death had left a void in their lives. She is missed terribly, they said.

Tammy Barnett said she prays for the family often.

“I mean, there have been many times I’ve wanted to see if I can talk to her parents. But I just didn’t know that was a good thing to do,” she said. “For them to have to go through another trial is heartbreaking. How many more times do they have to suffer?”


A call for change

It has been more than two years since attorneys returned to the courtroom asking for new testing, and there’s still a long way to go for the Barnetts as the West Virginia State Police investigation continues into the new evidence. While the Barnetts await a possible exoneration of her sons’ convictions, they fear the person she believes is the perpetrator could go free.

They often wonder how many other violent crimes he has committed. The process should be quicker, and not last more than a decade, they said. The parents did praise Cabell County Prosecutor Sean “Corky” Hammers for acknowledging the new DNA evidence and helping the case move forward.

A hearing to argue for the defendants’ possible exoneration was set for Aug. 30, but was postponed after Philip Barnett’s release and to give attorneys more time to build cases.

In the meantime, Tammy Barnett is seeking more transparency from the West Virginia State Police and court system, asking for required interview recordings and better standards for interrogations, policies which have changed nationwide overtime.

They also believe Dement should face additional charges for ruining the lives of several families, Tammy Barnett said.

“I do feel like he should be held accountable because it was his confession — whether coerced or not — that convicted my sons,” she said. “There’s been a lot of damage to not just our family but the other men’s and Deanna Crawford’s family.”


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