January 22, 2011 9:25:00 PM
Ryan Poe - [email protected]
WEST POINT -- After a four-day trial, a Clay County jury returned a not-guilty verdict Friday in the manslaughter trial of Jeremy Barnhill.
When the verdict was read, the family of Jeremy Barnhill leapt to their feet, cheering. "Thank God, thank God," his mother, Mary Barnhill, kept repeating.
Although they were chastised by 16th Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens, the family had waited more than a year to see Barnhill cleared of the charge.
The jury found that Barnhill, 26, of West Point, shot and killed 46-year-old Curtis Clardy in self-defense on Jack Williams Road in the Cedar Bluff community on Jan. 2, 2010.
As District Attorney Forrest Allgood comforted Clardy''s grieving family in a back room, Barnhill expressed his relief.
"This has been the hardest time I''ve ever been through in my life," said Barnhill, a self-employed construction worker.
His sister, recent Mississippi State University graduate Christy Roush, said she was glad the community now knows what her family knew all along.
"I''m just glad the truth prevailed and came out in court," she said.
As Clardy''s family solemnly left the courthouse Friday evening, some were still softly sobbing. His mother, Oneta Childers, said she was angry and frustrated by the trial''s outcome.
"I don''t see how this could have possibly happened," she said.
In declaring Barnhill not guilty, the jury sided with his version of events, which differed dramatically from some other witnesses.
Barnhill testified Thursday that he went to Clardy''s house on Jan. 2, 2010, to pick up his sister, Tiffany Johnson.
Johnson, who had lived with Clardy since Sept. 2009, testified that she was forced by Clardy to tell her husband, B.J. Johnson, that Clardy had been beating her. She also told him Clardy was out of town and that she wanted to come home.
B.J. Johnson relayed the conversation to Barnhill, who decided to go pick his sister up, Barnhill said. He took a 40-caliber Smith & Wesson with him in case there was trouble with Clardy''s family, who were next-door neighbors to Clardy.
When he arrived at Clardy''s house, he saw Clardy in the yard and drove past, heading down the dead-end road.
After he turned around to go back the way he came, he met Clardy, who blocked the road with his truck, Barnhill said.
Then, he continued, Clardy, who had a knife, and Clardy''s best friend, Donald Sheward, approached him while he was sitting in his vehicle with the door open and attacked him.
Fearing for his life, Barnhill took the pistol and pushed it into Clardy''s stomach and told him to leave, Barnhill said. When Clardy tried to break free, Barnhill shot him once.
In the ensuing brawl, Clardy was shot once more by accident, but not by Barnhill, according to Barnhill.
But in the version of Sheward, who was intoxicated at the time of the shooting, Barnhill had exited his vehicle and shot an unarmed Clardy twice before he was attacked.
In his closing argument, Allgood also pointed out several inconsistencies in Barnhill''s statements. Of those, the most prominent was his claim that he had pushed the gun against Clardy''s abdomen.
Allgood had Deputy Shane Lee demonstrate that the gun was made so that it would not fire if it was pressed hard against something, like Lee''s hand.
Defense attorney Jim Waide pointed out that the gun could still fire as long as its slide was not pushed back more than an eighth of an inch.
In a move that surprised Barnhill''s attorneys, Jim Waide and Shane McLaughlin, Johnson testified that her statement to Clay County sheriff''s deputies following the shooting contained several lies, which she had been forced to tell by her father, Jerry Barnhill.
The truth, she stated, was that Clardy and Sheward were not going to look for a fight with Barnhill.
Barnhill''s attorneys implied that she had changed her statement to put her in a favorable light with Allgood. Johnson is facing a charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault against her brother and is in a custody battle with her husband for their three children.
During her testimony, Allgood said that he was not sure conspiracy charges would be pursued against her in light of her confession.
Allgood could not be reached by press time about whether her charges would be dropped.