4 men convicted of 2002 murder claim DNA ties a child sex offender to the crime

Four men convicted in the case say a sex offender did it, and he's going free.

February 9, 2019, 12:48 AM

A convicted child sex offender who has allegedly been tied by DNA evidence to the brutal, 2002 murder of a young West Virginia woman got away with the crime while four men were wrongly convicted, according to a team of defense attorneys who say they submitted their evidence to state prosecutors more than a year ago without response.

Later this month, the convicted child sex offender will be released from prison after serving two years, according to a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (DRC). Court records indicate that he was charged with raping and impregnating a 12-year old girl. Since the individual has not been charged with any crime connected to the 2002 murder, ABC News is withholding the man’s name.

But defense attorneys and some of the four convicted men fear the sex offender will flee after his prison release – or worse, come after them.

“Look, I’m not out for blood,” said defense attorney Joshua Tepfer. “But this is a guy who has gotten away with murder from my and our perspective, and that’s a concern.”

The legal team representing the four men -- which includes The Innocence Project senior attorney Karen Thompson and Tepfer from the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School -- contend that their DNA proof of his guilt is virtually incontrovertible.

The child sex offender’s DNA was found not only on semen taken from the victim’s pants – which theoretically could have been there before the murder – but also on a cigarette butt near the body, according to the motion.

The still-incarcerated sex offender denied to state police investigators ever meeting the woman or ever being in the area where her body was found, despite the DNA evidence, according to court records and an audiotape of the interview.

“When confronted with this evidence by the West Virginia State Police, [the inmate] had no explanation for it,” defense attorneys argue in their most recent filing.

“In the year that the State has known about this exculpatory evidence, it has offered no explanation as to how [the inmate’s] DNA could be found on these two items of evidence in this remote area – yet still be innocent of this crime,” defense attorneys argue in the motion filed last fall.

Neither the state police nor the prosecutor on the case responded to emails and phone messages from ABC News. Efforts to reach a representative or relative of the sex offender, who could speak on his behalf, were not immediately successful.

An attorney who previously represented the sex offender told ABC News that he no longer represents him and had no contact information to provide for any family of current counsel.

A second attorney who previously represented him said he no longer represents the man, but would try and contact him to convey ABC News’ request for comment. The Ohio DRC spokeswoman accepted an ABC News request for an interview with the inmate, but could not immediately provide a response to the request.

The lengthy silence from the Calleb County Prosecutor’s Office has infuriated two brothers who were convicted in the case. One has served his sentence and the other was released on bond in light of the DNA evidence.

The brothers -- Philip and Nathaniel Barnett -- said in an interview with the Richmond Herald-Dispatch this week that they were convicted solely on the word of Dement, without any physical evidence introduced at trial.

"They convicted us and sent us to prison over something they made up themselves…” Phillip Barnett told the newspaper. “No evidence. No nothing. Now they have all the evidence enough to bury this guy, and they don't want nothing to do with it."

A veteran specialist in wrongful conviction cases, Tepfer said that the Crawford murder is unique.

“I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I’ve been involved in, honestly, dozens of exonerations, and there’s not a single case where I have seen where there’s more powerful post-conviction forensic evidence – DNA evidence – that proves the innocence of these four men. This is the type of evidence that wrongful conviction lawyers dream of getting.”

Confessions, Recantations

In August, 2002, two men were walking along a remote roadway in the woods in the tiny town of Salt Rock, West Virginia, just south of Huntington, when they came across the partially-nude body of 21-year-old Deanna Crawford. She had been strangled and beaten to death and may have been sexually assaulted, authorities said at the time.

There was no visible movement in the case until 2007, when a young local man named Brian Emerson Dement claimed that he and three other men killed Crawford, though he later recanted, according to his attorneys.

Despite recantations of two allegedly false confessions among the quartet, all four men went to prison for the Crawford murder and between them served a total of more than 40 years in prison.

Dement initially implicated Justin Keith Black, who – according to his attorney – made a false confession after hours of interrogation just so he could go home.

After Black gave police his statement, Dement cut a deal to testify against Black and the Barnett brothers.

At trial, prosecutors told jurors that Crawford was last seen at a party in a two-bedroom trailer home where Black lived, and that the Barnett brothers were in attendance, according to court records.

The Barnett brothers said the trailer home was an enclosed space, and that had she been at the party they would have seen her. Black also denied that Crawford was at his home that night.

Based on Dement’s testimony, all three men were convicted. Philip Barnett and Black received 40-year sentences, while Nathaniel Barnett received a 36-year sentence. Dement remains imprisoned, according to court records and interviews with defense attorneys.

Then, in 2016, a group of defense lawyers from two non-profit legal organizations, the Innocence Project and the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School, got involved in the cases.

They convinced a court to approve new DNA tests using more modern technology unavailable at the time of the initial investigation.

When the DNA was entered into the FBI’s DNA CODIS database and came back as a match for the sex offender, the defense lawyers sought out two of man's ex-wives and his current wife, and submitted their statements to the court.

Thompson said the DNA evidence is virtually incontrovertible.

“It’s not like this is ’touch DNA,' which is basically just skin cells,” she said. “We found a very strong semen sample, so it’s not like it was leftover a mixture of males. It was one man on her pants and that one male was matched to the cigarette butt in this very, very remote area. “It’s not like someone threw the cigarette out the window on the expressway.”

'I'll kill you, like I did with that girl'

A woman who was his wife in 2002 told investigators that around the time that Crawford went missing, the sex offender came home one night with blood on his clothes and bloody money that he hadn’t had when he left the house, according to the most recent defense motion.

She told investigators that he claimed to have been in a bar fight. She also said that he had once boasted of killing someone, and that another time she overheard a friend of her ex-husband threaten him by saying he would reveal what her ex had done to “that girl.” Attempts by ABC News to reach woman were not immediately successful.

A second ex-wife told defense investigators in May, 2018 that the inmate confessed to a murder to her, without naming Crawford directly. She said she didn't believe he knew the woman's name when he killed her.

In an interview with ABC News this week, the second ex-wife reiterated what she had told police last summer – that her ex-husband had abused her and her young daughter, and that he once claimed to her that he had killed a woman before they were married.

“Listen life with [the inmate] was no picnic,” she said. “He raped my 5-year-old daughter and he abused me. I threatened to leave him a couple of times and the last time, he said ‘go ahead and I’ll kill you, like I did with that girl before you and me go married…and he told me how he done it.”

She said that she knew about the Crawford murder like almost everyone else in the area, but that it wasn’t until years later -- when defense attorneys for the four men contacted her with the DNA test results allegedly tying her ex-husband to the case -- that she realized he must have been talking about Crawford.

"I started putting the pieces together and I was like, 'Oh, my God!'" she said.

Two months later, state police investigators contacted her about the case, she said.

“When the officer called my home, he asked if I was married to [the inmate] and I said, ‘yes,’” she told ABC News.

“He asked if I knew anything about the [Crawford] murder and I said, ‘How about a confession from [him] -- to me?’ And he said, ‘How soon can I come over?’”

“He came over the next day and we sat in his car and talked for 20 or 30 minutes…I told him everything.”

The woman said she told police and defense investigators that her ex-husband had confessed to her to murdering a woman before they were married.

She said her ex-husband “told me he had hit her in the head with a rock and that’s what killed her, and he drug her up into the woods over in West Virginia,” the woman said.

“He didn’t tell me where in West Virginia. He said that he went home bloody and that his wife at the time asked what the blood was all about and he told her he was in a bar fight.”

In separate interviews, the second ex-wife also told defense investigators that her ex-husband once told her, ‘I’ve killed somebody before, what makes you think I won’t do it again?’ and told her to ask his cousin, who she said confirmed to her that her ex-husband had killed a woman two years before they were married, according to the defense motion.

Crawford was killed in 2002, and the couple got married in 2004, according to the motion.

The inmate’s current wife told state investigators that he once told her about a time when “a girl had made him mad and he dealt with it,” according to court records.

With the man’s imminent release and the alleged DNA match, his second ex-wife told ABC News that given her experience with him that she wishes he wasn’t getting out of jail.

“I’m not happy about that,” she said. “I’m not happy about that at all.”