'I think I wanted the world to feel my pain'
- David Barnett
They’ve been like grandparents to you since you were eight years old. For little over a decade you’ve walked into their house as if it were your own, sat down at the dinner table with them and enjoyed countless meals and freshly laid out milk and cookies. Clifford is a stern but fair man and Leona shows you more love and affection than anyone you’ve ever known.
One Sunday morning - Sunday the 4th of February 1996, to be exact - you let yourself into their house and wait for them to get back from church. When they do, you greet them at the door, shake Clifford by the hand and hug Leona warmly.
A few minutes later both are dead.
You look down at the floor. The Barnetts are both lying slumped in a heap. They’re covered in blood. You’re covered in blood. The entire hallway and what looks like half the cutlery drawer is strewn across the floor. Everything is covered in blood.
You’ve stabbed your adoptive grandparents 20 plus times each. You had to use five knives in the end; such was the ferocity of your attack that each one would break with the sheer force of your stabbing.
You are now a killer
Why, though? Why did you do it? That’s a question that’s haunted David Barnett for almost two and a half decades.
I went into a state of overkill, of manic rage. I lost consciousness and killed two innocent people.
Barnett knows he was responsible for Clifford and Leona Barnett’s grisly murders. He remembers being in the house. He remembers the two of them returning. He remembers the blood and the knives and the panic. What he doesn’t remember is killing them.
Pretty convenient, you might think. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Barnett hasn’t just forgotten the incident, though. It hasn’t slipped his mind. It never actually entered it.
David says he blacked during the killings. It’s not a hugely uncommon thing to hear from perpetrators of extreme violence. Many violent criminals report entering dissociative states while committing a particularly atrocious offence. The annals of forensic psychiatry are packed with tales of dissociation and amnesia. In fact, amnesia is reported in up to 30% of homicides in the US every year.
This wasn’t the first time that David Barnett had zoned out and ‘left his body’. In fact, he was a dab hand at it. He’d spent half his childhood doing it. Not on purpose or anything, it was more by instinct. Children that are abused have a tendency to dissociate during periods of abuse as a way of trying to escape some of the psychological impact and trauma.
David was abused as a child. Severely and frequently. He would sometimes let his mind wander during the abuse and try to ‘escape’ what was happening. Did it lessen the effect of the beatings or sexual assaults? It’s impossible to say. All we can say for certain is starving a child of love during his formative years and then beating, starving and sexually abusing him is likely to leave some kind of damage on the poor child. In David’s case, it was quite a lot of damage.
Clifford was 82 years old and Leona was 75 when David viciously stabbed them both to death. He was in their house to tell them a secret. Their son - David’s adoptive father - had physically and sexually abused David since he adopted him when he was just eight years old. Growing up in and out of care, all he had known to that point in life was punches, kicks, belts, groping and rape anyway, so was hardly a surprise when John began to torment him. But, aged 18, he knew it was wrong and he wanted to expose his ‘father’ John for what he was…
Only Clifford and Leona didn’t believe David. Their son couldn’t do that to a child, they said. It wasn’t possible. David was lying. He was a damaged kid who was spinning lies for attention or out of spite. They told him he was lying. He blacked out. Two people then lost their lives in the most violent way imaginable.
Within 24 hours of the murders, David Barnett had confessed in full to the police. Confessed to what he could remember, anyway. His trial started in March 1997 at St. Louis County Court. His public defender barely turned up. She didn’t bother contacting any of David’s character witnesses and never once brought up his severe abuse as a potentially mitigating factor during his trial. She never once explored the possibility of diminished responsibility.
The jury found David guilty of two counts of first degree murder and sentenced him to die by lethal injection. The state of Missouri would not kill David Barnett, however. Six years after his trial, his sentence was reviewed by a more competent team of attorneys, who managed to get his sentenced commuted to life without possibility of parole.
David’s hopeful of getting out one day, despite his current sentence. He accepts responsibility for what he’s done and agrees that - at the moment at least - he should still serve time in jail. But, he says, he would love a chance to one day be allowed to walk free and become a productive member of society.
Should he be gifted that opportunity? Only the state of Missouri can decide that.
David Barnett was let down as a child. Let down by his parents, his foster parents, his adoptive parents and the state. Do his claims of disassociation during a hugely violent and shockingly brutal double murder and his subsequent years as a model prisoner mean that he deserves another chance? Again, only the state of Missouri can decide that.
When he was 18, he wanted the world to feel his pain. Now he wants to feel the world’s forgiveness.