New trial granted in toddler death

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By Bryan Marshall

A 27-year-old Crittenden man has been granted a new trial in the 2009 death of his girlfriend’s 13-month-old daughter by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

After more than two days of testimony, a Grant County jury took less than two hours on Jan. 22, 2010 to find Brandon Barnhill guilty of wanton murder of toddler Kiara Smith.

The 27-year-old Crittenden man is serving life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange.

However, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Feb. 23 that the trial court should have offered the six-man, six-woman jury an instruction on the lesser offense of second-degree manslaughter.

Jury members were instructed only on intentional murder, wanton murder and reckless homicide.

“In Barnhill’s case, it is certainly possible a juror presented with both options might have a reasonable doubt about Barnhill’s guilt on wanton murder but believe beyond a reasonable doubt he was guilty of second-degree manslaughter,” the court’s opinion states.

An individual is guilty of wanton murder when “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, he wantonly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person and thereby causes the death of another.”

Second-degree manslaughter omits the element that one acts with extreme indifference to human life.

The court found that because Barnhill called 911 and Kiara’s mother after the child’s injury, wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to meet first-responders, went to the hospital and become visibly upset when he learned of the child’s death that a reasonable juror could conclude that his actions negated the “extreme indifference to human life” element of wanton murder.

Barnhill was indicted February 2009 in the death of Kiara, who died Jan. 4, 2009, from blunt force trauma to the head.

Kiara was the daughter of then-18-year-old Katherine Smith, who had been dating Barnhill for about six months before the murder.

Barnhill was watching Kiara at his residence at 107 Main St. in Crittenden while Katherine went to her great grandfather’s funeral.

He alleged that he was about to change Kiara into her pajamas when she fell backward and hit her head on a stainless steel table.

A change in his story and mounting medical evidence eventually led to Barnhill’s arrest.

Barnhill eventually told police that after giving Kiara a bath, he was dancing around with her in the kitchen when he tripped and fell over an uneven entranceway and onto Kiara while entering the living room.

In his appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, Barnhill also said Commonwealth Attorney Jim Crawford acted in an improper manner on several occassions during the trial, resulting in prejudicing him before the jury.

Crawford had Barnhill re-enact for the jury the way he allegedly fell on Kiara.

The defense objected as Crawford towered above a crouched Barnhill, who tried to help the jury visualize his version of what happened during the fatal night.

The court’s opinion states that it could not condone the continued cross-examination of the defendant, who was compelled to lie on the ground in front on the jury.

“Without a doubt, jury trials are emotionally charged events and, perhaps, none more so than one related to the death of a child,” the court’s opinion states. “It is vital that the emotion of the trial never overcomes the defendant’s fundamental rights to due process.”