News from the Tennessee Valley State, Local and National news
TUESDAY, MAY 22, 2007

No jury on mental issue for Barksdale
Judge says defense missed deadline

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

Farron Barksdale on Monday lost the opportunity for a jury determination of his mental competency because his former lawyer did not file a timely jury request.

Barksdale, facing a capital murder trial for the 2004 shooting deaths of two Athens police officers, appeared in Limestone County Circuit Court as his lawyers argued 27 motions before Judge Bob Baker. The one motion District Attorney Kristi Valls filed — asking the judge to strike the jury demand on Barksdale's competency hearing — was granted.

"The issue of competency will be decided by this judge without a jury," Baker said. "The rule (imposing a deadline on the jury request) says what it says. I see no room for interpretation."

Baker said he would make written rulings on most of the defense motions at a later date.

Baker scheduled the competency hearing to begin July 30. If he finds Barksdale competent
to stand trial, the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial will begin Aug. 6.

Also at the July 30 hearing, the court will determine whether statements Barksdale made to police shortly after the killings should be ruled inadmissible. Barksdale's defense lawyers, Robert Tuten and Jake Watson, are arguing that Barksdale was mentally incompetent to understand his constitutional right to remain silent when he made the statements.

Barksdale's defense attorneys have never denied he shot and killed officer Tony Mims and Sgt. Larry Russell on Jan. 2, 2004.

Ex-attorney withdrew

John Mays of Decatur represented Barksdale at the time the deadline for a jury request expired. He later withdrew from the case, replaced by court-appointed counsel.

Mays said Monday he did not recall the specifics of his representation of Barksdale. He said he suspected he deliberately refrained from requesting a jury determination of his client's competency because public sentiment against Barksdale was so strong.

Mays said he could have requested a jury for the competency hearing and later waived it.

"The only thing I can think of (to explain not filing the jury request) was that the jury venire (list) was extremely prejudicial back then," Mays said. "They had donation jars in all the businesses for the deceased. ... We had a poll done, and the vast majority had already made up their minds."

Baker said he noticed the missed deadline while researching a related issue. He advised Valls and the defense lawyers, and Valls later filed the motion to strike the jury.

After the hearing, Valls said the judge could waive the deadline if she did not object. "But I object," she said.

Baker said Barksdale's lawyers had seven days to request a jury from the date the competency issue first came into play, which was early in the case. "The clock started ticking," he said, when the judge formerly handling the case ordered that Barksdale's mental competency to stand trial be evaluated. The judge issued the order in 2004.

Separate issues

The issue of whether Barksdale is competent to stand trial is separate from the issue of whether Barksdale is not guilty of capital murder by reason of insanity. The latter issue, which the jury will consider, focuses on Barksdale's mental capacity at the time of the crime.

Monday's hearing took about an hour. Tuten advised the court he had filed most of the motions to preserve Barksdale's right to appeal in the event the jury finds him guilty and the court sentences him to death.

Two deputies escorted Barksdale into the courtroom, which held about 30 spectators. Barksdale, 32, was wearing a black-and-white striped prison suit. He was handcuffed with his hands in front and a chain running from the handcuffs and around his back.

He waved awkwardly at family members in the audience both as he entered and as he left. He had a chain loosely tethering his ankles.

Barksdale was much thinner than he was at the time of the shooting. He now has short-cropped hair. He sat in a room next to the witness stand for about 20 minutes before the hearing began. He squirmed in his seat occasionally, stared through the windows and stared at his feet. He at times appeared to be talking to himself or praying.

During the hearing, he appeared attentive but expressionless. The few words he spoke were to his lawyers and the deputies.

At the center of many of the motions was a 2002 decision, Ring vs. Arizona, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a jury, not a judge, must determine whether a defendant is eligible for a death sentence. Most states with a death penalty provide that the jury must impose the sentence.

Alabama is one of four states in which a jury makes an "advisory opinion." The trial judge is not bound to follow that opinion. Thus, even if a jury sentences a defendant to life imprisonment, the judge can impose a death sentence.

Valls argued that as long as the jury finds any aggravating factor that makes Barksdale legally subject to the death penalty, the judge may consider other aggravating factors in deciding whether to impose a death sentence.

Tuten objected to any instructions that would reveal to the jury that its sentencing decision was merely advisory. Such an instruction, he said, "diminishes their sense of responsibility. It puts them in a mindset that their decision doesn't matter. It's unfair and, I believe, unconstitutional."

He also argued that a jury's advisory opinion recommending a death sentence must be unanimous, as is required when the jury determines the defendant's guilt or innocence and when it decides whether there are aggravating factors that make him eligible for the death penalty.

Valls said that because the state and federal constitutions permit a judge to impose a death sentence without a jury's input, it makes no sense that the constitutions would require a particular procedure in arriving at the advisory opinion.

According to Sheriff's Department and police reports, Barksdale called 911 several times on the day of the shooting, asking for the FBI.

Police said Mims pulled up to Barksdale's house at 1 p.m. and Barksdale shot 11 rounds from an assault rifle, seven of them hitting Mims. Russell arrived soon after, and two bullets hit him.

State doctors who evaluated Barksdale said he was competent to stand trial.

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