Daily photo by John Godbey|
Michele Russell Lopez, widow of slain Athens police Sgt. Larry Russell, right, speaks about the plea deal Thursday in front of the Limestone County Courthouse in Athens. At left is Jeff Mims, brother of slain officer Tony Mims, who spoke on behalf of the Mims family. Both families supported the plea agreement.
Closure in police killing
Victims' families back life-without-parole deal; chief says department 'disappointed'
By Holly Hollman
email@example.com · 340-2445
ATHENS — The families of two slain Athens police officers stood on the courthouse steps behind District Attorney Kristi Valls as she emphatically declared, "Farron Barksdale will die in an Alabama prison."
Barksdale, 32, pleaded guilty Thursday in Limestone County Circuit Court to five counts of capital murder and two counts of shooting into an occupied vehicle. He admitted he is mentally competent. Barksdale's mental competency trial was to start Monday.
Valls agreed to withdraw the death penalty in return for the plea. Barksdale will serve life without the possibility of parole.
Barksdale shot and killed Sgt. Larry Russell and officer Tony Mims on Jan. 2, 2004, at his mother's Horton Street home. The officers had responded to Barksdale's 911 calls for an FBI agent.
The slain officers' families asked for understanding. They were aware that only four officers from the Athens Police Department attended the plea hearing, none of them from the Patrol Division in which Mims and Russell worked.
"We're very disappointed, and I think I speak for the entire department on that," Police Chief Wayne Harper said during an interview at his office. "The plea has hurt morale not just here, but for law enforcement everywhere.
"Tony and Larry definitely would not be happy about this. We've been expecting a trial for 31/2 years, and we've been expecting the death penalty."
Sheriff Mike Blakely, whose department conducted the investigation, said he wholeheartedly supports the families' and DA's decision.
"I'm always a staunch supporter of the death penalty, but the problem with it is that it's not swiftly applied," Blakely said. "The family requested this plea and Kristi acted on that request."
Jeff Mims, a pastor and brother of Tony Mims, said he appreciates Valls' consideration of the families' wishes.
"To this day, I don't know what the DA wanted," he said. "She just gave us the information. The family decided unanimously."
Michele Russell Lopez, Russell's widow, said she knew many believe Barksdale deserved the death penalty.
"But my children deserve a life not filled with courtrooms or appeals," Lopez said. "I hope people understand that."
Linda Mims, Tony Mims' widow, said she understands the Police Department is like a family, but added, "They are on a different side of the fence than us. I hope they can understand why we agreed to this."
Both widows bowed their heads and cried during the 9 a.m. hearing before Circuit Court Judge Bob Baker, as he read the indictments. Barksdale replied, "Yes, sir," and "guilty" to Baker's questions.
Barksdale's attorney, Robert Tuten, said he met with his client three times this week about the plea. Tuten said Barksdale understood the plea and was "thinking clearly."
He said Barksdale is a paranoid schizophrenic who has abused drugs.
"But did he understand right from wrong is where we ran into a problem," Tuten said.
He said Barksdale has wanted to plead at various times since the shootings but knew he faced the death penalty.
"Farron Barksdale, from day one, has been extremely sorry for what happened," Tuten said.
Valls said the defense contacted her July 17 about a plea. She contacted the families and met with them Sunday.
"I asked them to think about it," Valls said. "They contacted me and expressed the desire they wanted this to be over. I respect and support their decision. The most important thing is (Barksdale) is held accountable. He will never walk our streets again."
Tuten said the state Department of Corrections has a special facility in Bessemer that cares for inmates with mental problems, but Valls said it's speculation whether Barksdale will serve his time there. DOC will make that decision, she said, adding, "It's not a mental-health case from the state's point of view."
The family's ordeal is not over. Since Barksdale pleaded guilty to capital murder, the law requires a jury trial to validate his guilt.
"It's a safeguard in a capital murder plea," Valls said. "The state will put on evidence and offer the guilty pleas. The defense will offer no evidence."
That trial will be Aug. 6 before Baker. Linda Mims will be in court for that trial.
"We'll be there for Tony, just like he would have been there for us," she said.
Life goes on for the families, but the loss is always with them. Tony Mims Jr., son of Tony Mims, is 19 now and seeking a job in law enforcement. Blakely told him to apply with the Sheriff's Department.
"I've always wanted to be an officer," the son said. "My father is on my mind every day. We used to really enjoy going shooting or hunting. Even after what happened, I never doubted being a cop is what I wanted to do."
Harper said his department will overcome. He met with each shift Wednesday once the rumor of the plea agreement circulated.
"I wanted them to hear it from me and let them know it was coming," Harper said. "I felt we had a strong case. The Sheriff's Department did a good job investigating. The DA was prepared. I'm sure the family feels relief it's over, but we're just disappointed."
Harper said the law includes the death penalty on officer shootings, not because one person's life is more valuable than another person's, but because an officer represents law and order.
"Shooting an officer is a strike against civilization," he said.
Harper said he knows the family realized the majority of the department was absent from the proceedings.
"I had talked to some of the family, and I think the world of all of them," he said. "I love them. I hope they stay in touch. The families will always be special to us, and I respect that this has been tough on them.
"This has been tough on us too, and we wanted a different outcome. We still think about Tony and Larry and the day we lost them, whenever we walk by their pictures in the lobby."
Memorial highway petition
Friends of the slain Athens police officers are circulating a petition to get the portion of U.S. 72 in the city limits named a memorial highway in their honor.
Felicia Holloway and her mother, Lisa, began distributing the the petitions Thursday.
They plan to take signed petitions to the Athens City Council. The city can ask the state Department of Transportation about memorial signs and council President Harold Wales said the city would consider the request.
If you are interested in signing the petition, call Felicia Holloway at 278-6684.
- Holly Hollman
Save $84.50 a year off our newsstand price:
Subscribe today for only 38 cents a day!