Oklahoma appeals court tosses life sentence in rape case

OKLAHOMA CITY - An Oklahoma appeals court on Wednesday tossed the life-without-parole sentence for a man convicted of raping an elderly woman, citing "alarming" prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments in the case.

In its unanimous opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals vacated the sentences of Travis Dillion Barnes for first-degree rape and burglary, and remanded the case for resentencing. The court described prosecutor Jared Sigler's commentary on Barnes' right to a trial during the closing arguments in the case was "nothing short of alarming."

The court noted the prosecutor suggested Barnes "wasted the jury's time" and could have entered a guilty plea instead. The right of a criminal defendant to a jury trial is protected by both the Oklahoma and U.S. constitutions, and the appeals court said a defendant cannot be punished for exercising that right.

"Hence, the prosecutor's commentary was nothing less than an assault on appellant's decision to exercise his constitutional right to trial," Judge Robert Hudson wrote in the opinion. "This type of argument is constitutionally impermissible and cannot be condoned."

Nowata County District Attorney Kevin Buchanan said Sigler, his former top prosecutor, may have gone too far in his argument, but that it came at the end of an emotionally charged case.

"In terms of the facts of the case, this one was just horrendous. It turns your stomach just to think about it," Buchanan said. "When you put this case in that context, it's easier for prosecutors after two or three days in a jury trial ... to get emotionally invested at the end of the case in arguing it."

Buchanan said he will again seek a life-without-parole sentence for Barnes for the rape.

Barnes was convicted of the November 2014 rape of an elderly woman during the burglary of her apartment in Nowata. He was linked to the woman's rape by both DNA and circumstantial evidence, and he confessed to the crimes on the stand.

Given the evidence in the case, the appeals court found the prosecutor's error did not affect the jury's findings of guilt and let stand his convictions.

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Follow Sean Murphy at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy


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