RICHFIELD — His wrists handcuffed together, Earl Leston Barnes bent over the prosecution table in 6th District Court Wednesday and signed a plea agreement — in doing so, admitting that he shot and killed a Garfield County sheriff's deputy in Escalante last January.
He'll now spend the rest of his life in the Utah State Prison.
"It's a hard sentence, it's very close to the death sentence," Judge K.L. McIff said to Barnes as he handed down the sentence of life without the possibility of parole. "It will be a painfully slow punishment that you will suffer, but at least you have your life."
Barnes, 53, might have a faced the death penalty had he stood before a jury charged with one first-degree felony count of aggravated murder and charges of aggravated robbery, aggravated escape, obstruction of justice and having an open container of alcohol in a car — charges he initially denied. But instead, he pleaded guilty to just a single count of aggravated murder, and all other felony and misdemeanor charges were dropped.
The plea comes one day before Barnes and co-defendant William Allred were set for preliminary hearings in Panguitch for the Super Bowl Sunday killing.
Allred, 50, will appear in court today, and Barnes' plea is not likely to affect those proceedings, Garfield County Attorney Wallace Lee said. Allred faces one count of aggravated robbery and one count of aggravated escape, both first-degree felonies; one count of obstruction of justice, a second-degree felony; and one count of driving under the influence of alcohol, a third-degree felony.
Barnes was a passenger in a pickup truck driven by Allred when deputy Dave Jones pulled the two men over on suspicion of drunken driving on Alvey Wash Road, a one-lane dirt road seven miles east of Escalante.
Allred was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol and was sitting handcuffed in Jones' patrol car when Barnes reached into the pickup truck and grabbed a rifle, shooting Jones. An audio recorder worn by Jones taped the incident, including Jones thrice asking Barnes to put the gun down.
Jones was shot once in the chest and lay dying on the dirt road when Barnes then threatened to shoot him again if he failed to hand over the handcuff keys, prosecutors said.
Barnes and Allred then fled across the back roads of southern Utah until they were spotted by an Arizona police helicopter and arrested.
Barnes was also injured in the shooting when Jones returned fire before falling to the ground.
"I'd like to apologize to Mrs. Jones and her family and to my family and tell them how sorry I am," Barnes told the judge. "And say that I hope someday, I can be forgiven."
But that day may be a long time coming.
Carolyn Jones, the wife of the slain officer, cried throughout the proceedings and addressed the court before McIff sentenced Barnes. Calling the shooting "one stupid act," Carolyn Jones said she and her five children, ages 6 to 22, have had to give up many of their dreams since the shooting.
Dave Jones will not be able to baptize his 8-year-old son into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is not here to advise and guide his eldest son, 22, who is serving in the Army. Or share favorite outdoor activities with his other sons, 17 and 21. He will never walk his only daughter down the aisle on her wedding day, Carolyn Jones said.
"And I have had to give up my dream of growing old together with Dave," she added.
Carolyn Jones said she had been taught through church to "turn the other cheek," but that she didn't know if she could ever forgive Barnes for what he has done.
She did, however, offer unconditional love to his family, saying she knew that they were also experiencing grief.
"I am pleased that you have chosen to take a sentence that is appropriate," she said finally to Barnes, who looked at the floor as she spoke. "You will have nothing but time to think and ponder your actions. Maybe you'll be able to answer the question that I cannot: 'Why did you take Dave away from us?' "
Barnes may never be able to do that, said his attorney, Ed Brass.
Barnes, a Vietnam veteran who earned two silver stars and one star for bravery while serving two years overseas, cannot remember much of what happened the day of the shooting, attorney Ed Brass said following the hearing.
"He remembers getting pulled over, he remembers getting a ticket, he remembers looking at the dog (in the pickup), but the next thing he remembers is bumping along the road somewhere and then lying on the ground when he was getting arrested," said Brass. "He doesn't remember it. When we played the tape for him of the shooting, he was shocked," Brass said.
Brass is hopeful that a psychological evaluation ordered by McIff will help determine whether Barnes suffers from post-traumatic stress as a result of his time in combat. Barnes has admitted to suffering an alcohol abuse problem, which Brass said Barnes developed after returning from war.
Barnes' three brothers and two sisters, all of whom live in southwestern Colorado where Barnes was raised, declined to comment after the hearing.
But they exchanged tears and hugs with Carolyn Jones as the courtroom began to clear.
Patting the widow on the shoulder before he pulled her in for a hug, one brother said, "I'm so sorry."