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Convicted murderer sentenced first to death penalty, then life in prison, now up for parole 37 years later


A former Alamance County man who was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in June 1984 – and whose sentence was overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1987 – is up for parole, the state Post Release Supervision and Parole Commission has announced.

Earl Jackson Barts, white male, now 79, had been convicted of murdering Richard Braxton, a 74-year-old farmer who had been known to carry large sums of cash, at his home in Snow Camp on November 19, 1983, when Barts was in his early 40s, according to the case background.

Earl Jackson Barts

State sentencing laws that were in place when Barts was convicted provided for the possibility of parole. The state’s current Structured Sentencing laws eliminated parole for crimes committed on or after October 1, 1994, according to the N.C. Sentencing and Policy Advisory Commission within the state courts system.

The N.C. Supreme Court granted Barts’ motion in July 1984 to bypass the customary route of appealing his death sentence at the appellate level, the case background states. Barts contended that he had not knowingly entered a guilty plea to first-degree murder under two theories: first-degree murder with malice, premeditation, and deliberation; and felony first-degree murder.

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The Supreme Court rejected that argument, concluding that the record contained sufficient factual basis to support his plea of guilty to first-degree murder under both theories.
During his initial trial in Alamance County, the presiding judge and asked Barts whether he understood that he was pleading guilty to first-degree murder on two theories: first-degree murder with malice, premeditation, and deliberation; and first-degree felony murder.

The judge explained to Bart that, in order to convict him of first-degree felony murder, the prosecution needed to prove each of the following elements: he committed the robbery of Braxton; that during the robbery he, or someone he was acting in concert with, had beaten Braxton on the head; and this beating caused Braxton’s death. Barts had told the judge he understood he was pleading guilty to first-degree murder under both theories, the case background states.

The Alamance County court record indicated that Barts was arrested and admitted to his participation in Braxton’s robbery and murder on December 5, 1983.

For his Supreme Court case, Barts contended that the “plea proceeding” supported only his guilty plea of felony murder, at most; and that evidence explaining the circumstances of his participation in the crimes had been improperly excluded during his trial in Alamance County.

The judge who presided over Earl Barts’ trial in Alamance County ultimately excluded testimony and a written statement offered by a witness for the defense, Richard Lockemy, based on what had been told to him about the robbery and murder. Lockemy had been involved in planning the robbery, along with Earl Barts’ cousin, Keith Barts, and several others, according to the case background.

See related story on 1984 testimony and faces from the trial, including then-SBI agent, now sheriff, Terry Johnson, who took Barts’ confession to participation:

Following his arrest, Earl Barts provided investigators with verbal, written, and recorded statements, detailing how an accomplice, identified as John David “Fireball” Holmes, had dropped him and his cousin off near the farmhouse, which was unoccupied at the time. After prying a door open with a crowbar and rubber hubcap hammer they’d brought with them, the two men found and took a 22-caliber pistol and sling blade but no money inside the house. A subsequent search of a shed on the property turned up a baseball bat that Earl Barts swapped for the sling blade. The pair had gone back into the house to search again but hid in the shed when they spotted headlights coming up the driveway, the case background states.

Noticing that the door to the shed had been left ajar, Braxton stepped inside to investigate and was met by Earl Barts, running at him and swinging the bat. Braxton picked up the discarded crowbar, striking Earl Barts’ arm and face, causing his attacker to drop the bat. Earl Barts pushed Braxton to the ground, and Keith Barts beat him with the rubber hammer and baseball bat until his body lay motionless, the case background states.

Earl Barts took Braxton’s wallet and the $3,200 in cash it contained, while Keith Barts delivered one final blow with the baseball bat. They drove the victim’s 1981 Ford pickup to a bridge along Lindley Mill Road, where they had arranged to meet Holmes; abandoned the truck; and disposed of the wallet and baseball bat. An Alamance County sheriff’s deputy confirmed the next day, on November 20, 1983, that Braxton had been found dead on the front porch of his home off Old Switchboard Road in Snow Camp.

Though Lockemy had offered the defense a statement – that outlined the planning and the moments immediately preceding Braxton’s murder, based on what Keith Barts had told him – the judge ruled it was inadmissible but told the defendant his attorneys could subpoena either man to testify for his trial, the case background states. In its ruling for Barts’ case, the N.C. Supreme Court acknowledged that declarations by individuals who are not present at trial are generally deemed inadmissible, but cited a 1978 ruling that established they could be admitted under limited circumstances.

The N.C. Supreme Court concluded the exclusion of this evidence was “highly relevant” to the imposition of the death penalty and might’ve been sufficient to “tip the scales” toward life in prison had it been allowed during Earl Barts’ trial in Alamance County. Instead, the jury recommended the death penalty, and he was sentenced to death on June 7, 1984.

“Given the relevance of Lockemy’s statement, the assurances of its trustworthiness, and the greater latitude to be afforded in sentencing proceedings, we hold that exclusion of the Lockemy statement deprived [the] defendant of a fair sentencing hearing,” associate justice Harry C. Martin wrote in his opinion for the N.C. Supreme Court. “Under the facts of this case our hearsay rules must yield to due process considerations.”

Louis B. Meyer, then-senior associate justice for the N.C. Supreme Court, issued a dissenting opinion in which he reasoned that Barts had failed to properly preserve Lockemy’s statement for his appeal and that there was no assurance that Lockemy’s written statement could be introduced without the opportunity for cross-examination.

The state Supreme Court remanded his case to Alamance County for a new sentence but determined there was no need to address other errors that Barts had asserted in appealing his death sentence.

The Supreme Court upheld his convictions for second-degree burglary; larceny; and armed robbery, according to the case background. Barts was represented for his sentencing appeal to the Supreme Court case by Graham attorney Robert Collins and Mebane attorney Lee Settle.

Earl Barts was removed from death row on April 28, 1988 and subsequently sentenced to life in prison on May 3, 1988 during what appears to have been a bench trial, based on court documents. He is currently incarcerated at Southern Correctional Institution in Troy, according to the state Department of Corrections (DOC). The parole commission is conducting an investigation into Earl Barts’ case for possible parole but has not yet announced a hearing date.

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