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Murder charge against WVU law clinic client dismissed

WVU Law Melissa Giggenbach, Nathaniel Barnett and Devon Unger
Melissa Giggenbach, program director of the WVU West Virginia Innocence Project Law Clinic, Nathaniel Barnett, a client of the law clinic, and Devon Unger, the clinic's staff attorney, outside the Cabell County Courthouse on October 5, 2021.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After more than 14 years, Nathaniel Barnett has walked away from the Cabell County Courthouse in Huntington, West Virginia, a completely free man.

On October 5, the state dismissed murder charges against him because DNA testing identified the actual perpetrator. Barnett is a client of the West Virginia Innocence Project Law Clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law.

“It feels great to finally put this behind me,” he said. “Even though I was out of jail, having the charge and another trial hanging over me was extremely stressful. Now I feel like I can finally move on with my life.”

Charges were also dismissed for Barnett’s brother, Philip, and Justin Black. The Barnetts, Black and a fourth man, Brian Dement, were all convicted in 2008 of charges related to the murder of Deanna Crawford in 2002 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.

“I am so relieved that, after years in prison and awaiting a new trial, Nathan has finally been cleared through DNA evidence and can really begin living his life again,” said Melissa Giggenbach, program director of the West Virginia Innocence Project. “WVIP was able to achieve this result with the help of numerous student attorneys, staff attorney Devon Unger, co-counsel Jason Goad, and the innocence organizations who represented the other co-defendants.”

WVIP collaborated with the University of Chicago Law School’s Exoneration Project, which represents Black, and the Innocence Project, which represents Philip Barnett, to request DNA testing of evidence that was retrieved from the crime scene but not been presented in the original trial. Dement is represented by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In June 2018, Barnetts’ and Black’s defense attorneys received results of DNA comparisons conducted by the West Virginia State Crime Laboratory that revealed a single DNA profile on a cigarette butt found at the scene. It matched the DNA profile obtained from semen found on the victim’s pants that had been removed and left beside her body.

That new DNA belonged to a man who lived in Huntington at the time of the crime and who had been convicted of committing sexual assault on a minor. This DNA evidence excluded all four men originally convicted in Deanna Crawford case.

The Barnetts’ and Black’s convictions were vacated by the Cabell County Circuit Court in May of 2019, and the men’s cases were set for two separate retrials. Attorney Jason Goad of Goad and McClure joined WVIP in representing Nathaniel Barnett in 2019. After more than two years preparing for trial, the special prosecutor appointed to the case agreed to dismiss the charges against the three.

Tammy Barnett never gave up on her sons throughout their ordeal.

“It’s such a relief to know this is finally over,” she said, following the dismissal of charges. “I don’t know that I will ever be able to get over the heartbreak I feel knowing my children were punished, had years of their lives taken from them, for a crime they didn’t commit. We will never get that time back, but at least now we can focus on our future.”

Since 2018, several WVU Law students have worked on the Barnett case: Cory Lowe ’18, Zachary Szkolnik ’18, Lora Walker ’19, Karissa Blackburn ‘19, Olivia Haught ’20, Kiana Bracciodieta ’20, Auri Shay ’21, Emily Isaacs ’21, Ashley Brash ’22 and Katie Giegal ’22.


A draft of this news release was prepared by Melissa Giggenbach and Devon Unger.

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