HUNTINGTON — Whether it's working on the river, building race cars or working on puzzles in the weeks leading up their next — perhaps last — hearing, the Barnett brothers have been staying busy to keep their minds off Thursday's possibility of facing murder charges for the third time.
"I'm always working. I'm even working on my days off now," Philip Barnett said. "I still think about it, and just want it to hurry up and get here."
Philip Barnett, his brother, Nathaniel, Justin Black and Brian Emerson Dement were convicted in the 2002 murder of 21-year-old Deanna Crawford based solely on a recanted admission of guilt by Dement. The brothers' convictions were later overturned on appeal and they later entered guilty pleas to avoid harsher punishments a conviction by jury would bring.
The case against the Barnetts and Black was again tossed out earlier this year by Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson
after DNA evidence tested at the men's request within the past few years implicated an Ohio man as being at the murder scene instead. Ferguson denied Dement a new trial because he had not maintained his innocence and said he could seek relief from the West Virginia Supreme Court.
At that hearing, Ferguson gave the special prosecutor assigned to the case, Tom Plymale, six months — until Aug. 1 — to make a decision on whether the brothers would be charged for a third time.
Philip Barnett served more than 10 years before being released on bond in light of the new evidence. Black is out of prison on parole, and Nathaniel Barnett had been released from prison after serving his time. Dement remains incarcerated at the Northern Correctional Facility after Ferguson denied his release on bond based on a prior criminal record and his confession under oath.
It has been more than three years since the group first sought to retest the evidence found at the scene with more advanced DNA technology. Continuances and investigations have pushed back the case several times, until Ferguson's ruling earlier this year.
Nathaniel said it was frustrating to have to live with not knowing for so long.
"I just wish it would hurry up and be over with," he said. "I know it's hard to get everybody on the same page and get everyone caught up on stuff, but it takes two years to put you in and 20 years to get you out.
"I hope the judge and the prosecutor and everyone does the right thing and end it for us. I hope."
The man implicated by the DNA and a wife who said he came home bloodied with money he could not explain one night during the summer Crawford was killed has served no time related to the case.
He had been incarcerated for a sex offense crime in Ohio, but has since been released and is believed to be living somewhere in central Ohio. He has not been formally charged in Crawford's death, although his DNA was found on a cigarette butt and in semen found at the crime scene.
He also has no known connection to the other four men.
The only way police were able to connect the Barnetts and Black to Crawford's death was through a now-twice recanted, eight-hour long confession via Dement. Dement later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the slaying and was the sole witness used to convict the other three defendants, who took their cases to trial and maintained their innocence.
No matter what occurs at Thursday's hearing, the brothers said Crawford, her family and their suffering remains on their minds and close to their hearts.
"They deserve the truth and justice, just as well as we do," Philip Barnett said. "Anytime I say that to people, I always include her and her family because they don't know any better. They know what's going on, but the story about us has been pounded in their head."
The men are represented by the Innocence Project, the West Virginia Innocence Project and the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School. Local attorneys Abe Saad, Richard Weston and Lonnie Simmons also have worked on the case.
Reporter Travis Crum contributed to this story.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHessler-HD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.
HUNTINGTON — The need for social support in West Virginia's public schools is well-documented and equally dire.
There are 10,522 homeless students in the Mountain State — which continues to drag at or near the bottom in most poverty metrics — with the opioid epidemic splintering the family unit at every corner.
But schools in a handful of West Virginia counties are preparing for the welcome addition of new, state-funded and school-based support staff to connect students with outside resources. That comes with the expansion of the Communities In Schools (CIS) program from three to 11 counties for the coming 2019-20 school year.
More than 175 educators met in Huntington on Tuesday for the first of the four-day Summer Learning Institute, hosted at the DoubleTree Hilton by the West Virginia Department of Education and first lady Cathy Justice.
Last year, the West Virginia Legislature allocated $3 million to expand Communities In Schools from a oneyear pilot in Berkeley, McDowell and Wyoming counties for the 2018-19 school year to 11 counties starting in the 2019-20 year. Added will be Cabell, Calhoun, Clay, Fayette, Hardy, Lincoln, Pendleton and Raleigh counties — serving 59 schools.
This represents the largest single-state rollout of the program in the national organization's 42-year history, said Elaine Wynn, CIS chairwoman
and billionaire philanthropist, speaking at the Huntington conference. West Virginia is also the first state to carry a statewide certificate to expand into all counties at once in the future — rather than district by district as CIS normally connects into schools.
"We're doing something (in West Virginia) that we're attempting to do nationally because the need is so great, rather than growing incrementally like we have been," Wynn said.
CIS is currently active in 25 states and the District of Columbia, serving roughly 1.6 million students nationwide.
At the ground level, CIS trains and places "site coordinators" at schools in need, five days a week, to connect students with available community resources for whatever they may need — described as a fluid combination of a social worker, counselor and a graduation coach.
"By having these resources and that role, it frees up teachers to teach and principals to be principals in schools," added Michael Huang, CIS vice president for communities and practice.
According to the Communities In Schools 2018 Community Matters Report, analyzing the 2016-17 school year, 100% of the 342 case-managed students in Greenbrier County graduated, 87% were promoted to the next grade, and there was an 85% increase in attendance and an 84% increase in academic scores.
Expanding the program is a noted priority of Gov. Jim Justice, who addressed it in his past State of the State speech with a video with famed basketball player Shaquille O'Neal lending his support. First lady Cathy Justice has long advocated for the program since it was first piloted in the Justices' home Greenbrier County in 2004, adding it can be simply an additional person for a child in need to talk to at school.
"We're just trying to get to the counties that are in true need of this right now and expand into the entire state," the first lady said Tuesday. "Every county can benefit from it; every county has problems — it doesn't matter if you're inner city or rural, you all basically have the same problems."
Five schools in Cabell County will have CIS site coordinators: Huntington High School, Huntington East Middle School, Central City Elementary School, Guyandotte Elementary School and Spring Hill Elementary School. All are designated Title I schools, meaning they receive additional federal aid for serving a disproportionate percentage of impoverished students.
Huntington High in particular could benefit from a CIS coordinator on site, said Ryan Saxe, Cabell County superintendent of schools. Huntington High's graduation rate is 75%, well below the county average of 87%.
"We have tremendous resources available in our community, but this is about getting all those resources to the right students at the right time," Saxe said.
As it stands, maintaining a CIS presence in West Virginia is not set in stone. The S3 million allocated by the West Virginia Legislature to operate in the 11 counties expires after a year, meaning it would need to be renewed in the next session.
HUNTINGTON — A trial date has been set for a Huntington man, currently serving a year-long jail sentence in a battery case, who began his fight Tuesday against new accusations that he raped two other women.
Joseph Chase Hardin, 22, of Huntington, had been serving three years' probation in lieu of a one-year jail sentence for the 2016 on-campus attack of Alicia Gonzales after being convicted of misdemeanor battery in 2017.
He was jailed in early June after he was charged with four counts of second-degree sexual assault related to two fall 2018 incidents involving two 18-year-old women. Officers asked for his probation to be revoked in light of the new charges and his admitted alcohol use. An officer also testified he had attacked a manager at a restaurant where he worked, but that woman did not want to pursue the case.
Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson agreed to revoke Hardin's probation last week after hearing testimony from a victim, law enforcement, Hardin and others.
At Tuesday's first pretrial hearing in the new case, Ferguson said he believed Hardin would only have to serve six months of his current sentence, which would leave him eligible to get out of jail in early December.
Defense attorney Kerry Nessel asked for a speedy trial date to be set, and Ferguson set the trial to start at 9 a.m. Sept. 3 in response.
Nessel also asked for a separate trial for each of the two alleged victims because their cases were not intertwined and did not occur at the same time. Nessel said having two victims in one trial would be prejudicial to his client.
Assistant prosecutor Kellie Neal said similarities in the alleged assaults — the victims' allegations of what occurred, their appearance, how they met and the close approximation that the alleged assaults occurred in time — are enough to try the cases together. She also said the law would allow the allegations made by the other victim to be brought up in a second trial anyway.
Ferguson agreed with Neal and denied the motion for separate trials.
Unprompted, and in response to Hardin offering to take a lie detector test during his testimony last week, Ferguson warned Nessel and Hardin to not bring it up again. A lie detector test cannot be submitted as evidence in trials. The accuracy of polygraph testing has been a controversial topic for years. Ferguson fears if Hardin brought it up at trial, a juror might question why prosecutors had not allowed him to take one.
Hardin is housed at Western Regional Jail in Barboursville.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.