SBI agent (now sheriff) Terry Johnson took suspect’s confession; private attorney (then District Attorney) George Hunt prosecuted the case; private attorney Fred Sternberg defended Barts
Earl Barts’ trial for the murder of Richard Braxton took place June 4-7, 1984 in what is now known as the Historic Court House (at the time it was the only courthouse).
Barts pleaded guilty to the November 19, 1983 bludgeoning death of Richard Braxton, 74, of Old Switchboard Road in Snow Camp.
Many of the names of participants in the trial are familiar, even 37 years later.
While Barts pleaded guilty – he said at the time he had done so at the urging of his attorney, Fred Sternburg, as well as Barts’ wife and two children – he insisted in testimony at trial, and at the death penalty hearing afterwards, that he had not struck the blow that killed Braxton.
Instead, Barts claimed that his cousin, Keith Barts – with whom he had committed the robbery, burglary, and larceny – had struck the fatal blow to Braxton.
However, the investigator for the State Bureau of Investigation, Terry Johnson – then an 11-year veteran of the state law enforcement agency and since 2002 the county’s sheriff – testified that the blood splatter pattern was not consistent with Barts’ claim about his vs. his cousin’s role.
Prosecuting the case was Alamance County district attorney George Hunt and then-assistant district attorney Steve Balog; the latter would go on to become district attorney in his own right and, later, a superior court judge. The judge is referred to as “judge Hobgood,” which is apparently Robert H. Hobgood, a superior court judge from Warren County for 38 years, who retired in 2018.
SBI agent Johnson had also interviewed Barts who made a confession (without requesting an attorney), and later agreed to a video, in which he described his role in the events that led to Braxton’s death.
He insisted that his cousin had beaten Braxton while the victim and Earl Barts struggled after the man discovered them.
See related story on Barts’ pending parole hearing 37 years after conviction: https://alamancenews.com/convicted-murderer-sentenced-first-to-death-penalty-then-life-in-prison-now-up-for-parole-37-years-later/
Johnson interviewed Barts for one hour and 20 minutes just before noon on December 5, the day law enforcement had recovered the murder weapon, a baseball bat that Barts acknowledged having picked up out of Braxton’s garage.
Barts had been arrested at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill where he said he had checked himself in to deal with his drinking problem. In testimony during the trial, he acknowledged being a heavy drinker; the plot to rob Braxton was hatched at a bar, the Smokeshop, in Mebane.
Three days later, in another videotaped interview to which Barts consented, he told Johnson where a gun taken from Braxton’s house was buried behind his own trailer.
Court coverage in The Alamance News from the June 7 and June 14, 1984 editions does not include what Barts’ previous incarceration had been for, or whether it had been disclosed at trial, but he had insisted during his own time on the witness stand that he would not have done anything that resulted in another prison term.
[Editor’s note: all 1984 testimony and courtroom information are from coverage in The Alamance News, written by staff writer Pete Fields, in the June 7 and June 14, 1984 editions.]
Earl Barts’ testimony
He says he had told his wife, who had picked him up from the Mebane bar the night before the murder he had been “offered a job.” He testified that he told her: “I didn’t know what it was, and I told her I wasn’t gonna do no job for nobody, ‘cause I wasn’t going to leave my wife and two children and go back to prison.”
He then repeated, “I’m not going back to prison for nobody,” he testified.
“I didn’t know what [‘the job’] was, and I told her I wasn’t gonna do no job for nobody, ‘cause I wasn’t going to leave my wife and two children and go back to prison.”
“I’m not going back to prison for nobody.”
– Earl barts testimony during 1984 trial
He testified that on Saturday, November 19, 1984, he drank and smoked marijuana, first at the bar and later after Keith Barts and “Fireball” Holmes took him home.
“They talked some more about the job,” he testified in 1984, “and the more they talked, the more I drank.”
“They [cousin Keith Barts and John David “Fireball” Holmes] talked some more about the job, and the more they talked, the more I drank.” – Earl Barts during 1984 testimony
Ultimately, after 9:00 p.m. they drove out into the country near Braxton’s house. Holmes stayed in the vehicle, while Earl Barts and Kevin Barts went to Braxton’s house.
Earl Barts testified that they “were going to look at a house,” but testified he didn’t realize they were really going to commit a robbery until he and Keith Barts started walking across a field toward Braxton’s house.
While they were looking inside the house, Braxton returned home and went into the garage. Barts and his cousin followed; Braxton used a crowbar to knock the baseball bat out of Earl Barts’ hand, he testified, and while he and Braxton struggled, he says Keith Barts started hitting Braxton, first with a hammer he had brought and then, after the hammer’s handle broke, with the baseball bat.
“Don’t hit him no more,” Barts testified he yelled at Keith Barts, adding, “Don’t kill the man.”
The jury was shown three photographs of Braxton’s body from the crime scene, over the defense attorney’s objections.
“Don’t hit him no more. Don’t kill the man.” – Earl barts 1984 testimony about what he told his cousin, keith barts as he was beating on braxton
Subsequently, five photographs from the autopsy conducted by Dr. Robert Anthony were also shown to the jury, again over Barts’ attorney’s objections.
Anthony said a “massive” internal hemorrhage led to Braxton’s death. “There was a good deal of blood present on the head, face, hands and feet,” Anthony testified.
That same point was also made by a neighbor, Eddie Murchison, who had gone with his son to Braxton’s house on Sunday morning after they had observed Braxton’s truck on a nearby road. (Testimony indicated that Barts and his cousin had driven the truck to rendezvous with Holmes.) The three men split the $3,261 they had found in Braxton’s wallet.
Murchison discovered Braxton’s body that Sunday morning, making his son wait in the car once he realized he had stumbled onto a murder scene. “His face was all covered with dried blood,” Murchison testified.
“I ain’t mad at you…may god bless you and forgive you.” – Earl barts’ comments to court after being sentenced to death for murder of richard braxton
After the jury had deliberated for a little over five hours, they returned the death sentence. Judge Hobgood asked Barts if he had anything to say to the jury.
“Yes, sir, I do,” he responded.
“I understand that I spoke the truth,” he said, “cause I ain’t never killed nobody. But I understand that you had a job to do, and I want you to know that I ain’t mad at you.”
“May God bless you and forgive you,” he concluded.
After the judge had set the date for his execution, Barts was allowed to make additional comments.
He said he had pleaded guilty at the encouragement of his lawyer, wife and children. He said he had never wanted to plead guilty.
“Pleadin’ guilty is like sayin’ I killed the man and I didn’t,” Barts said.
“Like I said, I haven’t killed nobody, and I spoke the truth.”
“Like I said, they had a job and I ain’t mad at them,” nodding toward the jury, then he sat down.
The judge also sentenced Barts to an additional 40 years for robbery with a dangerous weapon; three years for second-degree burglary; and three years for the felonious larceny of the truck, for a total of 73 additional years.
In a separate trial, Keith Barts pleaded not guilty but was found guilty of first-degree murder. He could have gotten the death penalty, but was sentenced to life in prison.
Like Earl Barts, he was also charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon; he pleaded not guilty, but was found guilty and sentenced to 12 out of a possible 40 years.
Keith Barts pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, for which he received an additional three years out of a possible ten.
His convictions breaking and entering and larceny each could have brought 10 years; he received three years each.
And on the conviction of second-degree burglary, Keith Barts was sentenced to 12 out of a possible 40 years.
Supreme Court upholds cousin’s conviction and sentence
The N.C. Supreme Court upheld Keith Barts’ conviction and sentence, based on his first argument that a statement he made to investigators on December 4, 1983 was inadmissible because it hadn’t been written out by him, but instead by then-SBI agent Terry Johnson. The Supreme Court deemed that argument meritless.
Keith Barts also unsuccessfully argued that the judge who presided over his trial in Alamance County had erred in denying a motion to prohibit the prosecutor from “death qualifying” the jury, i.e. selecting jurors who said they would vote to impose the death penalty if warranted by the facts and evidence in the case. Keith Barts argued on appeal that the practice of death qualifying a jury in capital cases violated his constitutional right to a fair trial; the Supreme Court held that the practice is not unconstitutional, in addition to rejecting several other grounds on which Barts contended that he had not received a fair trial.
The court upheld Keith Barts’ conviction of first-degree murder under the theory of premeditation and deliberation; conspiracy to commit armed robbery; second-degree burglary; robbery with a dangerous weapon; felony breaking and entering; and felony larceny. Now 70, Keith Barts, white male, is currently incarcerated at the Dan River Prison Work Farm in Caswell County, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Another accomplice to the robbery, who was tried simultaneously with Keith Barts and identified in court documents as Charlie Mann, was convicted of solicitation to commit common law robbery, according to the case background. Mann, white male, was 62 when he was convicted in Alamance County superior court in May 1984 and given a seven-year prison sentence. DOC records appear to indicate that he died in September 1987 at the former McCain Correctional Hospital in Raeford, which closed in 2010.
Richard Lockemy, then 29, white male, was convicted of felony conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and felony robbery and received a 14-year prison sentence, according to the DOC.
John David “Fireball” Holmes, then 33, white male, was convicted of second-degree murder in Alamance County superior court on June 7, 1984 and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Holmes was also convicted of felony robbery with a dangerous weapon and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, for which he received maximum, concurrent prison sentences of 28 years and 10 years, respectively, according the case background. Holmes was paroled in March 1994, after serving less than 10 years of his sentence, DOC records reveal.