Exonerated Brothers Philip and Nathan Barnett File Wrongful Conviction Lawsuit

Brothers Philip and Nathan Barnett stand outside the Cabell County Courthouse Oct. 5 following dismissal of their 2011 pleas to the 2002 murder of Deanna Crawford.
Brothers Philip and Nathan Barnett stand outside the Cabell County Courthouse Oct. 5 following dismissal of their 2011 pleas to the 2002 murder of Deanna Crawford.

Huntington - On Tuesday, the New York law firm of Kaufman, Lieb, Lebowitz and Frick, along with co-counsel Hissam Forman Donovan Ritchie PLLC, based in Charleston, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Philip and Nathan Barnett, two brothers who were wrongfully convicted and collectively spent 18 years in prison for a murder they did not commit.

The lawsuit, brought against the Cabell County Commission and several West Virginia State Police officials, alleges that police and prosecutorial misconduct caused their wrongful convictions for the August 2002 murder of Deanna Crawford. The State’s case against Philip and Nathan rested almost entirely on a false confession state police officials coerced from co-defendant Brian Dement implicating them in the crime, but multiple rounds of DNA testing conducted on evidence from the crime scene proved the brothers’ innocence.

“Philip and Nathan were only 25 and 28 when they were unjustly convicted and robbed of their freedom,” said KLLF partner Douglas Lieb in a press release. “Although nothing can erase the harms caused by this nightmarish ordeal, Philip and Nathan now seek justice and accountability from the state and local officials whose misconduct deprived them of a collective 18 years of life.”

Philip and Nathan’s convictions were vacated in May 2019 based on new DNA testing on semen obtained from the victim’s pants and cigarette butts found near the crime scene that matched to a convicted sex offender Timothy Smith, who was then incarcerated in Ohio for a sex-related conviction. The State formally dismissed all charges against Philip, Nathan, and another co-defendant, Justin Black, on October 5, 2021. Black, who has also filed a civil rights lawsuit, is represented by Loevy & Loevy, based in Chicago, Illinois.

According to today’s lawsuit, state police officials fabricated evidence by extracting false and coerced confessions from Dement, a heavy drug user with significant cognitive impairments. The suit alleges that, during their nine-hour interrogation of Dement, who was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, state police officials threatened him, lied to him, and fed him details of the murder. Similar tactics used against Black resulted in another coerced confession, which he recanted almost immediately. Dement later recanted his false confession to a private investigator but disavowed that recantation to acquiesce to a plea deal when threatened by the prosecutor with a longer sentence. Although DNA evidence at the time excluded Philip and Nathan as contributors, they were convicted after a trial in 2008. Two years later, in 2010, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals vacated Nathan and Philip’s convictions, holding that “the lower court abused its discretion by excluding evidence that Dement had told a defense investigator that his confession was false.” Terrified that a retrial would lead to another unjust conviction, Philip and Nathan made the agonizing decision to accept Kennedy (or Alford) pleas in 2011, allowing them to maintain their innocence while nonetheless being convicted.

The suit also claims that the Cabell County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office possessed numerous items of exculpatory evidence and information that it failed to disclose to the Barnett brothers’ defense counsel during their trial, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Such evidence included, among other information, a laboratory analysis of the tire marks found at the crime scene excluding as a match the vehicle the State accused the men of driving to the scene, and the fact that the only other person to testify against Philip and Nathan—William Scott Harbour, who had numerous open criminal cases at the time—was offered favorable consideration in exchange for his testimony.

“Philip and Nathan continue to live with devastating psychological consequences that are a direct result of the wrongdoing of state and local officials in this case,” KLLF attorney Alyssa Isidoridy said. “We now seek to ensure that their appalling abuse of power does not go unchecked.”

Philip and Nathan Barnett are represented by KLLF’s Doug Lieb, Ali Frick, and Alyssa Isidoridy.