MORGANTOWN, W.Va.— WVU Law's West Virginia Innocence Project recently helped overturn the conviction of a man who spent more than seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
On May 1, Judge Alfred E. Ferguson of Cabell County, West Virginia, vacated the manslaughter conviction of Nathaniel Barnett in light of newly-tested DNA evidence. Barnett was convicted in connection with the 2002 murder of Deanna Crawford.
Ferguson gave the Cabell County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office 90 days to decide if they want a new trial for Barnett or if the charges should be dismissed.
Nathaniel Barnett, his brother Phillip, Justin Black and Brian Dement were all convicted in 2008 of charges related to Crawford’s murder despite the lack of physical evidence connecting them to the crime scene.
Their convictions were based heavily on the inconsistent testimony of Dement, in which he implicated himself, the Barnetts and Black as Crawford’s killers. Dement’s confession, which he recanted twice, followed an overnight police interrogation.
WVIP collaborated with the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project and the national Innocence Project to request DNA testing of evidence that was retrieved from the crime scene but had not been presented in the original trial. The Innocence Project represents Phillip Barnett and the Exoneration Project represents Black.
The results of the new DNA testing excluded all four men and implicated a new perpetrator, Timothy Smith. He is a convicted sexual felon who was not previously considered for Crawford’s murder, but the forensic evidence puts him at the crime scene.
Nathaniel and Phillip Barnett and Black are out of prison. Ferguson denied Dement a new trial based on his confession and his prior criminal record, and he remains incarcerated at the Northern Correctional Facility in Moundsville, West Virginia.
WVIP signed onto the Barnett case in 2016. Former WVIP student-attorneys Cory Lowe '18 and Zachary Szkolnik '18, and former WVIP director Valena Beety started work on Nathaniel Barnett’s case. It was taken over by student-attorneys Lora Walker ‘19 and Karissa Blackburn ‘19, staff attorney Melissa Giggenbach, and Hope DeLap, the WVU Law Franklin D. Cleckley Fellow.
“Being in the courtroom with Nathan when he received this wonderful news was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” said Blackburn. “Our clinic has worked with him for several years, and it was an honor for me to be able to learn his story, to represent him, and to fight for his innocence.”
For Walker, Nathaniel Barnett’s release is one of her proudest achievements so far in the law.
“To see the years of hard work put in by the West Virginia Innocence Project culminate in such an extraordinary ruling is just an example of the amazing work the legal team strived to do,” she said.
Nathaniel Barnett and his West Virginia Innocence Project legal team (l to r): Lora Walker, Melissa Giggenbach, Karissa Blackburn, Hope DeLap and Emma Harrison.