Carroll Co.'s prosecutor finds success using hands-on approach in courtroom

Barnes wins guilty plea in recent double murder

April 11, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Jerry F. Barnes, Carroll County's top prosecutor, spent weeks preparing to try a double-murder case -- including drawing his own layout of the crime scene.

Because defendant Smith Harper Dean III had rejected a plea bargain last year, Barnes said, he was surprised when Dean pleaded guilty to two first-degree murder charges this month, in return for two consecutive life-without-parole sentences rather than the death penalty. Other charges were dropped.

"We would have liked to have gone to trial and proceeded with a death-penalty sentencing phase," he said, but "a person can go into court and plead to the most serious charges.

"If a person goes in and pleads to the most serious count, it's very impractical for a prosecutor to say, `I'm still going to try you on a burglary charge.' "

When Carroll Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. offered to let Dean plead guilty, Barnes' only recourse would have been to ask the judge to remove himself from the case, Barnes said. The prosecutors had twice fought to keep the judge on the case in the face of defense challenges to Beck's impartiality.

"In the big scheme of things, I think this was the best result," Beck said.

Dean, a 40-year-old Hampstead pit-beef entrepreneur, pleaded guilty to killing Sharon Lee Mechalske, 38, a woman he had dated, and Kent Leonard Cullison, 30, an Arcadia mail carrier. Both died June 14, 1997, of shotgun blasts at her home in Hampstead, where Dean was arrested.

M. Gordon Tayback, a defense attorney for Dean, had said the defense would attempt to convince a jury that one killing was second-degree murder, which would have eliminated Dean's eligibility for the death penalty.

The defense lawyer, who has tried many capital cases, said it isn't unusual for a judge to become involved in plea negotiations -- and the result was not unexpected.

"Mr. Dean had always expressed to us that he wanted to save all the people, all the families, the trouble of a trial, because he was very upset about all the pain that he had caused both to his family and to Sharon's family and also to the various members of Mr. Cullison's family," Tayback said.

Because Dean has 30 days to change his mind and file an appeal, Barnes said he considers the case open and wouldn't comment further.

It would have been the county's first death-penalty trial since 1993 -- when a defendant received a life sentence instead.

It wouldn't have been unusual to find the state's attorney in the courtroom.

Barnes prosecutes more cases than other Baltimore-area state's attorneys for two reasons: because he likes prosecuting, and because Carroll long has had fewer cases than the other counties, allowing its top prosecutors more time in the courtroom, he said recently.

"I do 40 to 50 serious cases a year -- drug cases, serious crimes of violence," Barnes estimated.

His office's caseload is smaller than its counterparts' in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Frederick counties -- "more comparable to Washington County or the Eastern Shore," he said.

His recent weeks haven't been occupied solely with the Dean case: Amid trial preparations, Barnes has traveled to Annapolis to lobby for criminal justice bills and minded administrative duties.

The 50-year-old Frederick native ran unopposed for a second term last year. He had lost and then won in election challenges to his former boss, five-term State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman.

Road to law career

Barnes' road to the law and the prosecutor's office took a few detours.

He graduated from Westminster High School in 1966 and from Columbia Technical Institute of Drafting in 1967. Barnes has maintained an interest in art and collects Impressionist prints.

Drafted into the Army in 1968, Barnes qualified as a Green Beret and served in Vietnam with the 5th Special Forces Group, earning two Bronze Stars before his discharge in 1971.

He earned a law degree at the University of Baltimore and became an attorney in 1977, working in the Carroll County state's attorney's office from 1978 to 1989. After losing to Hickman, he worked as a drug prosecutor in Frederick County until his election in 1994.

Fighting drug abuse and domestic violence have been priorities since Barnes took office.

After the killings of Mechalske and Cullison, he obtained county money for another domestic-violence investigator so his office could have someone on call 24 hours a day to respond quickly to violations of court protective orders.

His initiatives on domestic violence -- recently the root of most Carroll homicides -- have won Barnes praise and awards. They line his office walls, amid reminders of his days in Vietnam.

Anti-drug campaign

Barnes said he is also proud of his office's anti-drug campaign. His "Heroin Kills" bumper stickers plaster cars and billboards, and his office has launched a middle school drug prevention program.

"I'm very proud of our relationship with the school system now," he said. "It's probably the most important facet in anybody's war on drugs."

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