HUNTINGTON - Newly tested DNA evidence would exonerate some men convicted in the 2002 murder of 21-year-old Deanna L. Crawford and might instead point to someone who has a history of abuse, according to documents filed with the Cabell County circuit clerk this week.
Phillip Scott Barnett, 37; his brother Nathaniel Barnett; and Justin Keith Black, 34, who are working with the Chicago-based Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School and West Virginia Innocence Project, are asking their convictions be overturned and for new trials.
Crawford was found Aug. 8, 2002, in Salt Rock by two men walking along Hickory Ridge Road.
Investigators believed her death had followed an Aug. 5, 2002, party at Justin Black's house. That evening involved drinking alcohol, playing video games and a vehicle ride that turned violent. The motivation for her death remains a mystery.
Crawford's family then waited more than six years for an arrest.
The request for a new trial comes nearly two years after Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson approved a request for possibly exonerating DNA evidence to be tested.
The DNA evidence was recently returned and attorneys with the Exoneration Project and Innocence Project believe "the DNA evidence can show not simply that each person was not the perpetrator, but that the entire theory of the crime is false and implicates multiple innocent people."
The profile identified through the FBI's DNA CODIS database connected that DNA to a currently incarcerated felon with a history of pedophilia and violence against women, attorneys wrote.
Phillip Scott Barnett, 37, received a 40-year prison sentence, while younger brother Nathaniel received a 36-year sentence. Justin Keith Black, 34, was convicted by a jury. He received a 40-year prison sentence. Brian Emerson Dement testified against his three co-defendants, admitting he hit Crawford once, dragged her by the neck and left her with the other men. He pleaded guilty and received a 30-year prison sentence.
Black did give investigators a statement about that night, but his attorney said it was done after hours of interrogation and he had just told police what he thought they wanted to hear so he could go home. Before he recanted the statement, he had been charged.
Black now maintains he did not know Crawford and the entire story of how she was killed was made up. If Black had hit the victim, traces of his DNA could be found on her, his attorney said.
In 2009 the Barnett brothers filed a Supreme Court appeal asking for a new trial. They were successful when the justices found then-Circuit Judge John Cummings erred when he denied defense attorneys the opportunity to play two inconsistent statements made by confessed murderer Dement.
Both entered Kennedy pleas, which allow a conviction without the defendant admitting guilt, to voluntary manslaughter. Phillip Barnett additionally entered a plea to malicious wounding. Both proclaimed their innocence as they were sentenced, according to court documents.
The possibility of new evidence was brought to light in June 2016 when Black's attorney Joshua Tepfer, who works for the Chicago-based Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, asked Cabell Circuit Judge Alfred E. Ferguson to allow them to test the DNA.
The Barnett brothers later joined in with Black's request after learning of the hearing. Ferguson approved the request for DNA testing in September 2016.
That DNA evidence allegedly led to the implication of a new suspect, whose semen was found on the victim's pants despite him allegedly denying knowing her, according to the documents filed this week.
Habeas corpus applications were filed Monday in Cabell County Circuit Court. A habeas corpus petition can be filed when new evidence is brought to light in a case and an inmate feels he or she is being improperly held.
Phillip Barnett's appeal, filed by Karen Thompson, names four grounds for why his conviction should be overturned. Thompson said there are questions about his guilt related to an alleged involuntarily plea, the sufficiency of evidence and newly obtained DNA evidence.
No physical or testimonial evidence implicated Barnett as having killed the victim, Thompson said, and the DNA evidence found at the crime scene actually is connected to an individual not even questioned by law enforcement.
The filings allege the new evidence fully undermines the confession made by Dement, which placed Barnett and him at the remote crime scene, the sole evidence used to connect Barnett to the murder of the victim.
Had Barnett been aware of the DNA evidence, which had only been recently tested, he would not have entered the plea and would have gone to trial, Thompson said.
A new lead
According to defense filings, the man implicated by the DNA testing performed on the victim's pants is currently incarcerated in an Ohio prison and has a history of pedophilia and abusing women, the filings alleged.
The man, who was only identified as having lived in Huntington at the time of the killing, denies knowing Crawford.
But when interviewed by police, 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 did not have when he left. He said he had been in a fight, but could not explain the money, the documents allege.
She said he changed his behavior and stayed home, opposed to his usual routine of going out every night. At one point during their relationship, he told her he had killed someone.
She also noted an argument he had with a friend in which the friend threatened to report what the man had "done to that girl," according to the new court documents.
The wife said the suspect had a history of doing drugs and sleeping with sex workers, but he denied the allegations. He also has a history of abusing her, she alleged. At one point he broke her hand to obtain pain pills through her injury.
That man was jailed at age 40 after he allegedly raped a 13-year-old Cabell County girl in his van as his son played nearby. The girl was also impregnated by him, the documents allege.
Attorneys say he has no connection to any of the convicted men. A call made to Ferguson's office seeking a hearing date for the filings was not returned Wednesday.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.