Barnes’ death sentence vacated in 1992 Tutterow murders

Published 3:56 pm Tuesday, January 5, 2021

SALISBURY — A federal judge has vacated the death sentence of a man found guilty in the 1992 murders of B.P. and Ruby Tutterow and given 300 days for a new sentencing hearing.

William Leroy Barnes, one of three men convicted in February 1994 in the murders, saw his death sentence vacated in December in an order by Judge Thomas D. Schroeder, a federal judge in the Middle District of North Carolina. At issue in the case is whether misconduct by a juror had an effect on the jury’s decision to impose the death penalty.

The state of North Carolina now has 300 days from Dec. 7, the date of the court’s order, to have a new sentencing hearing for Barnes. Alternatively, if no hearing is conducted, Barnes will receive life in prison, according to Schroeder’s order.

The case originated in Rowan County and, if a sentencing hearing is scheduled, could wind up back in Rowan County courts. While Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook confirmed the court’s ruling, she declined to comment about what her office planned to do in Barnes’ case.

“Since this is pending and pursuant to the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct, I respectfully cannot comment further,” Cook told the Post.

Tutterow murders

B.P. and Ruby Tutterow were shot several times in a brutal murder on Oct. 29, 1992.

Frank Junior Chambers, a man also found guilty in the murders, accepted a plea deal that day from the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office and received a probationary sentence in a felony breaking and entering case. Then, hours later, Chambers, Robert Lewis Blakeney and Barnes, also known as “Green Eyes” and “Timmy,” forced their way into the Tutterows’ Park Avenue home.

During the trial in 1994, prosecutors portrayed the trio as cold and calculating. Blakeney smoked a cigarette and ground it into the bedroom carpet as the other men held the couple at gunpoint. Chambers snuffed out his cigarette in a dish that Ruby Tutterow made in a ceramics class. Barnes ate a pork chop that was found partially chewed and still in foil on the floor near the bodies.

But Blakeney told the court he did not kill the couple and put a gun down after it was handed to him.

Post archives show Blakeney told the court he met Barnes and Chambers in the parking lot of a convenience store at the intersection of North Long Street and Park Avenue, saying that he needed money. Another witness testified Barnes told him earlier on Oct. 29, 1992, he would “take out somebody” or sell drugs to make money.

After meeting at the convenience store, the trio walked to the Tutterow home.

B.P. Tutterow had a rifle and struggled with intruders near the door. He watched his wife die before the killers used one of his own guns to kill him, court testimony showed.

Two of the three men defiantly celebrated their death sentence in March 1994 when Barnes and Chambers shared a low-five that echoed through the courtroom, Post archives state. In addition to their death sentences, Barnes and Chambers received 120 years for armed robbery and burglary of the elderly couple’s home. Blakeney received back-to-back life sentences and 120 years.

Barnes’ case has wound its way through the court system for years until December. Appeals were not successful in state court. An initial challenge in the U.S. Court for the Middle District of North Carolina also failed, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court ruling and ordered an evidentiary hearing related to allegations of juror misconduct.

Juror’s actions

The juror misconduct involves a woman who consulted her pastor about the case, relayed that information to other members of the jury and read Bible passages aloud that rebutted a closing argument made by a defense attorney representing Chambers, who presented religion-focused arguments about the death sentence.

Chambers’ attorney prompted the jury to consider whether they would want to explain to God that they had violated one of his commandments, “Thou shalt not kill.”

“Does a true believer want to explain to God, ‘Yes, I did violate one of your commandments. Yes, I know they are not the 10 suggestions. They are the 10 commandments. I know it says thou shalt not kill but I did it because the laws of man said I could,’ ” the attorney stated. “You can never justify violating a law of God by saying the laws of man allowed it. If there is a higher God and a higher law, I would say not. To be placed in the predicament that the state has asked you to place yourself in, is just that. To explain when your soul is at stake.

“Yes, I know the three that I killed were three creatures of yours, God. And that you made them in your likeness. I know you love us all, but I killed them because the state of North Carolina said I could. Who wants to be placed in that position? I hope none of us. And may God have mercy on us all.”

There was no interjection from the trial court in Rowan County or the prosecution, court documents state.

But the juror, a devoutly religious person, “was struck by an attorney’s assertion that she would go to hell if she voted to impose the death penalty,” court documents state.

“She approached her pastor and spiritual guide in the middle of jury deliberations to obtain clarity on that very subject, and he assured her that, contrary to the attorney’s arguments, her religious beliefs permitted her to vote for the death penalty,” court documents state.

She then spent up to 30 minutes talking to the jury about what her pastor said and reading Bible passages.

The Middle District Court in North Carolina ruled against Barnes after holding an evidentiary hearing. But the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals again reversed the lower court, saying the “external communication was not harmless.”

After its ruling, made in September 2019, the 4th Circuit sent the case back to the Middle District Court for further action consistent with its decision. Schroeder’s order issued Dec. 7 was the result.

The state of North Carolina attempted to appeal for a rehearing en banc — when all justices on the 4th Circuit hear the case instead of a three-judge panel — as well as to the U.S. Supreme Court and was not successful.

Barnes, 59, and Chambers, 59, are currently in Central Prison in Raleigh. Blakeney, 56, is being held at Caswell Correctional Center in Caswell County.