Death Sentence, D.C. Style

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, May 28, 2005

Several readers, without knowing any more about prison inmate Keith Barnes than what appeared in last week's column, "A Witness Pays the Price in Prison," still had a lot to say about him and street life. Most of the speculation about Barnes, who was murdered on May 7, the day after he arrived at the federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Tex., was offered with moral certitude -- and was way off the mark.

Here is more of his story, obtained from his cousin and family spokesman, Sharon Brown, and from Peter Zeidenberg, an official with the Justice Department's public integrity division who, as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District, prosecuted Barnes. I also spoke with a homicide detective familiar with the case who asked not to be identified.

Around nine years ago, Barnes, then about 17, accompanied Theo Mitchell, James Pearsall and James "Rat" Carpenter to the apartment of Israel "Dog" Jones in Southwest Washington. "Dog," a reputed drug dealer, was thought to have money, so they went there to rob him.

Pearsall reportedly kicked in the door of the apartment, but the place was empty. Carpenter ordered two of the men to go find Jones, which wasn't hard to do because they knew the area where he usually hung out. They kidnapped Jones and brought him back to the apartment, where Carpenter was waiting. Carpenter took him into the bedroom, brandished a gun and asked him for the money. Scared by the way Jones was being threatened, Barnes went into the living room and was on his way out of the building when Jones was shot.

Last week I wrote that Barnes "by all accounts, should have been behind prison walls." The homicide detective contacted me by e-mail after the column appeared, and we subsequently spoke by phone. Here's what he had to say:

"Keith by all means committed murder when he conspired to rob the person who was killed. He was a participant. But Keith Barnes took responsibility for his actions and his being a part of the whole crime. Keith Barnes also confessed to what he did, and his testimony made the case against two of the three other conspirators. . . . Of course, he had a debt to pay for his involvement in the murder. But he was essential in putting in jail two other persons who were just as or more culpable in that murder than he. The case could not have been made without his cooperation and honest remorse for what he was part of."

Zeidenberg agreed with the detective. In a phone interview this week, Zeidenberg said that when police investigating the Jones murder arrived at Barnes's home, Barnes, at his family's urging, owned up to his involvement in the crime. He also agreed to cooperate with the government in the prosecution of the others, including Carpenter, who was allegedly responsible for other shootings in the city.

(Carpenter, while in the D.C. jail awaiting trial for the Jones murder, was also charged, on Sept. 24, 1997, with the April 7 stabbing death of another inmate, 19-year-old Quan Levonte Harris, also awaiting trial on a murder charge. Carpenter pleaded self-defense and was later acquitted.)

Zeidenberg said Barnes knew he was putting himself in jeopardy by testifying for the government, but he was remorseful and wanted to do the right thing. Zeidenberg said that took courage, because Barnes had received notes from Carpenter threatening him and his family. There were times when Barnes had second thoughts, Zeidenberg said, but he told Barnes to "trust us, we will take care of you."

Barnes's testimony for the government did, in fact, help bring about Carpenter's first-degree murder conviction and a life sentence, both Zeidenberg and the detective said. In an agreement worked out with the prosecution, Barnes agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder. Both Zeidenberg and the detective said they expected Barnes would receive a five-year sentence or less, given his cooperation with the government and the fact that he had not pulled the trigger.

The detective told me, "Keith knew he was putting his life on the line when he confessed and testified against the others. However, he and the prosecuting attorney [Zeidenberg] and detectives felt that he would get a break for all that he had done and was sacrificing." Instead a D.C. Superior Court judge ignored the plea agreement and sentenced Barnes to 17 years in prison. (A Federal Bureau of Prisons document reported in December that Barnes was serving a life sentence for murder.)

Stunned by the judge's actions, Zeidenberg said he filed two separate motions for reconsideration of Barnes's sentence; the judge denied both without a hearing. Zeidenberg also filed a motion making Barnes eligible for parole and it was granted. But when Barnes came up for parole in 2003, as reported last week, it was denied.

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