The Second Circuit Court of Appeal in Shreveport is being asked to decide whether Fourth District Court Judge Larry Jefferson can change his bench trial verdict from guilty of second-degree murder to one of manslaughter in the case of a Monroe man.
Court documents show that Michael Lorenzo Barnett Jr. of Monroe was found guilty Aug. 23, 2016, of second-degree murder in a bench trial before Jefferson at the Ouachita Parish Courthouse in Monroe.
Barnett’s attorney subsequently filed motions for a new trial: one to reconsider the verdict or for a directed verdict of acquittal and one to reconsider the verdict. On Jan. 9, Jefferson denied the motions for a new trial and the directed verdict.
It didn’t take long for Jefferson to change his mind.
Court documents from Jan. 18 show Jefferson granted Barnett’s motion to reconsider the verdict. Jefferson also changed his previous verdict to manslaughter.
The verdict change is significant because of the state’s sentencing guidelines for the crime of second-degree murder as compared to the sentencing guidelines for manslaughter. A verdict of second-degree murder automatically means a defendant must serve life in prison without benefit of probation, parole or suspension of sentence. Manslaughter carries a sentence in which a judge has the discretion to set at any length — including no time served — as long as it does not exceed 40 years in prison.
Barnett was accused of shooting and killing Andre Alexander, a family acquaintance, on Dec. 21, 2011 in the Tanglewood Subdivision area. Barnett and the victim were reportedly arguing in the victim’s front yard when the suspect went to his car, started to drive off, but then pulled out a gun and approached Alexander.
The victim ran from his Tanglewood Drive home to Dellwood Drive with Barnett pursuing and firing his handgun.
Alexander was hit five times and fell dead in a ditch on Dellwood, as reported by investigating deputies. There were numerous witnesses to the shooting who knew the defendant and the victim.
After Jefferson changed the verdict in Barnett’s case, Fourth Judicial Assistant District Attorneys Shirley Wilson Davis and Holly Jones notified the judge of an expedited appeal to the Second Circuit. Jefferson set sentencing the next day, Jan. 19, at 1:30 p.m., but later changed it to Friday, Jan. 20. The Second Circuit granted a stay before the sentencing hearing and will render its ruling at a later date.
The Fourth Judicial District Attorney’s office argued in its appeal to the Second Circuit that there is no law that gives the judge a second chance on a ruling made from the bench.
“It is procedurally improper and without any legal authority for the trial court to make such an unprecedented ruling reversing his judgment/verdict of guilty of second degree murder to a verdict of guilty of manslaughter months after the trial,” stated the appeal.
The appeal pointed out the conviction of manslaughter “does not require the defendant’s imprisonment.”
Court records show the chain of events that unfolded regarding Jefferson’s verdict was not the first time emergency writs were issued in Barnett’s case. On March 23, 2015, the defendant filed a motion to quash the bill of indictment against him. In the motion to quash, he alleged that the time to bring his case to trial had elapsed. Jefferson agreed and ordered Barnett released from custody.
The District Attorney’s office objected to Jefferson’s ruling and gave its notice of intent to file emergency writs to the Second Circuit. The appeal court overturned Jefferson and said he had abused his discretion in granting the motion to quash when, as argued by the District Attorney’s office, there was an outstanding motion and because of the continuances filed by the defendant. It was sent back to Jefferson for further action.