3 men convicted in death of WVa woman cleared on new DNA

Posted at 1:16 PM, October 6, 2021 and last updated 8:46 PM, June 14, 2023

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Three men who were convicted of killing a woman in West Virginia 19 years ago were cleared of charges in the case after new DNA evidence was presented.

Special Prosecutor Thomas Plymale dismissed all charges Tuesday against brothers Philip and Nathaniel Barnett and Justin Black, The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reported.

“You never think that this can happen to you until it does,” Philip Barnett said in a news release from the Innocence Project. “We have missed out on so many things and we have had this hanging over us, but not anymore. Today, we are truly free.”

Deanna Crawford, 21, was found beaten and strangled Aug. 8, 2002, in a secluded area of Cabell County, but her death went unsolved. Five years later, Brian Dement gave police conflicting statements implicating himself and the other three men during an interrogation in another case.

Dement gave courtroom confessions to his role in Crawford’s death three times, each leading to the conviction of his former co-defendants — the Barnetts and Justin Black — who he said were accomplices. He later recanted his statements.

The Barnetts’ convictions were later overturned on appeal and they entered guilty pleas to avoid harsher punishments a conviction by jury could bring, they previously said.

Black went to court in 2016 to ask for additional DNA testing. That testing indicated another man was at the scene, as his DNA was found on a cigarette butt and in semen, but the man denied ever being to the area where Crawford was found.

Plymale said the man, who has not been charged in Crawford’s death, will likely not face prosecution.

“Given the fact that each of these defendants made detailed confessions of their involvement in the case to the parole board, it would be impossible to secure a conviction against anyone else,” he said. “No one really puts (him) in the area. His link is the DNA evidence, but the fact they’ve all given statements would all come in (at trial).”

Philip Barnett was released on bail in August 2018 while his habeas petition based on new exculpatory DNA evidence was pending, the Innocence Project news release said. Nathan Barnett had been previously released in 2015, and Black was released on parole in 2018, the release said. The Innocence Project participated in the defense.

Dement accepted a sentence modification of time served for second-degree murder. He had been serving a 30-year-prison sentence. Dement was expected to be released from prison Tuesday, according to the Innocence Project.

Plymale said he has talked extensively to the victim’s family throughout the process.

“They understood the DNA evidence caused us some problems. They are understandably exhausted with the case that has gone on this long,” he said. “They wanted it over with and felt this was a compromise. They were willing to put the case to rest this way. There will be no more appeals and no more issues.”

Crawford’s mother has said she still believes all four men are guilty.