On August 8, 2002, the body of 20-year-old Deanna Crawford was discovered in the remote region of Cabell County, West Virginia. Crawford had been strangled, beaten and likely raped. Five years passed without police developing any leads. Brothers Nathan and Philip Barnett and their friend Justin Black were indicted in May 2007 based on three conflicting, drug-addled and shifting “confessions” provided by a man named Brian Dement over the course of an 8-hour overnight interrogation after an unrelated arrest. Although Dement’s confession did not comport with the facts of the crime scene, all four men were convicted.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that your only two children have spent eight-plus years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit,” said Tammy Barnett, Nathan and Philip’s mother.
In June 2016, the Innocence Project began its representation of Philip in conjunction with attorneys from the West Virginia Innocence Project, which is representing Nathaniel, and The Exoneration Project, which is representing Black, and helped secure DNA testing on several items of evidence collected from the crime scene. Testing conducted on the victim’s clothes provided a single-source, CODIS-eligible DNA profile that “hit” in the CODIS database to a convicted pedophile with a history of violence against women and children who had lived in the area at the time of the crime, and excluded the Barnett brothers, Black, and Dement.
“Even when DNA does exactly what it is supposed to—identify the true perpetrator in a case—we often end up still having to fight on,” said Innocence Project Senior Attorney and Philip’s lawyer Karen Thompson. “DNA is clearly our tool to prove innocence, but, unfortunately, it too often becomes the first of many steps instead of the last step in remedying a deep injustice.”
In March 2018, the Innocence Project and West Virginia Innocence Project filed motions to vacate the Barnetts’ wrongful convictions. Despite all evidence to the contrary, local prosecutors are maintaining that the conviction is proper.
“I just hope I live to see the day when Philip is free, and both my sons are finally cleared of this miscarriage of justice,” said Barnett.