The S.C. Supreme Court has reversed the death sentence of a man convicted in the 2001 torture and killing of a teenager.
The court ruled on Wednesday that a trial judge should have allowed 34-year-old Steven Barnes to represent himself during trial. Barnes was convicted and sentenced to death in 2010. Prosecutors said he kidnapped 16-year-old Samuel Stirrup from Augusta, beat him with a pipe, stuffed him in a trunk and drove into a wooded area in Edgefield County.
Barnes accused Stirrup of stealing his money, and beat him with his fists, a pole and a shock absorber in September 2001, according to the court's ruling. Then, Barnes ordered four other people to each shoot Stirrup before Barnes shot him in the head.
Stirrup's body was discovered three months later with other identifying information.
Barnes asked to represent himself before the trial, according to the court's ruling.
“Appellant (Barnes) was unequivocal that he was not seeking a delay or a continuance,” the court wrote. “He asked for all relevant documents to be provided for his review, and asked if he could possibly subpoena the Husbergers, who were incarcerated in Georgia.”
Barnes demonstrated understanding of the court process and discussed with the judge the relevant case law, the burden of proof and his right to testify, the ruling stated. He told the judge he wanted to represent himself due to trust issues, and that he had another attorney in mind to act as standby counsel in lieu of his appointed attorneys.
The judge concluded the pretrial hearing by telling Barnes, “I think you're making a mistake, but you have the right to make a mistake,” according to the document.
He told Barnes to reconsider his decision and discuss it with his appointed attorneys.
One of Barnes' attorneys referred the trial court to a case which holds that a state may impose a higher competency standard for waiver of counsel than it does for competency to stand trial, according to the ruling. The attorney told the judge that experts hired to evaluate Barnes for the sentence phase decided he was competent to stand trial, but he lacked “the competency to waive his right to counsel and conduct the proceedings on his own.”
Barnes was the only convict from Edgefield County on death row.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.