2016 Durham murder charge dismissed after key witness killed

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A 2016 murder charge against a Durham man was recently dismissed after a key witness in the case was killed in April, according to court documents.

“An essential witness for the state has been killed,” Assistant District Attorney Luke Bumm states in the June 21 court filing dismissing the murder charge against Curtis Marcel Barnette.

“Without the testimony of the now-deceased witness, the state cannot present sufficient credible evidence to prove all elements of the crime charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Barnette, 41, was charged with killing Reginald Cole, a 50-year-old father of three found lying in a parking lot at 119 E. Cornwallis Road on June 30, 2016.

Reginald Cole, who was killed in 2016, with his youngest daughter Elizabeth Cole. Courtesy of Reginald Cole's family

John Kenneth Mason, 58, was a key witness in the trial that was expected to start this month, according to a recently released search warrant application sought by Durham Police Department Investigator R.A. Armstrong.

Mason died April 28 after police found him suffering from multiple stab wounds, including an eviscerated bowel, at the Pure Mart convenience store at 101 E. Cornwallis Ave., states the warrants that successfully sought access to Barnette’s phone and two of his associates’ phones.

Pure Mart video surveillance shows Mason taking out the trash around 10:05 p.m. — leaving the front door, making a right by the dumpster and walking out of view of the camera.

About four minutes later, Mason returned to Pure Mart.

“He was bleeding heavily,” the warrants state. “He collapsed on the floor.”

On May 3 a confidential informant told law enforcement officials that Barnette “had been hanging out at a house,” across the street from a gas station at the corner of South Roxboro Street and West Cornwallis Road, which is in the area where Mason was stabbed.

The search warrant was executed May 7 and made public last week. Barnette hasn’t been charged in Mason’s death, according to court documents.

The fact that police sought the warrant, waited a period of time and then dismissed the 2016 murder charge in June is a strong indicator that there was no evidence linking Barnette to Mason’s death, said his attorney, Johanna Jennings.

In general, the case linking Barnette to the 2016 murder was “weak” Jennings said, and she wasn’t surprised that it was dismissed.

Curtis Barnette

Barnette was arrested on a charge of killing Cole on Sept. 6, 2016.

He spent more than 600 days in jail as his bond was reduced from $1.5 million, to $500,000 in 2017 and $100,000 on Jan. 29, 2018, according to court documents.

“Mr Barnette is truly indigent and cannot post this bond despite months of trying,” Jennings stated in a May 11, 2018, bond-reduction motion that also states Barnette has maintained his innocence.

Jennings requested the bond be reduced to $25,000 unsecured, which means Barnette wouldn’t have to put up any money to get out of jail.

Since the January 2018 bond hearing, a DNA lab report from the state crime lab indicated that Barnette’s DNA doesn’t match items tested from the scene, the filing states.

Barnette was released from jail in June 2018 after Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson reduced his bail to $100,000 unsecured and ordered that he not have contact with Cole’s family members and Mason.

Elizabeth Cole, 26, the youngest of Reginald’s three children, said she is concerned that a dangerous person has been set free.

Previous murder charge

In 1995, Barnette, then 17, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Court documents indicate that police believed Barnette, at age 15, shot Eric Donell Brown, 25, on Jan. 4, 1994, twice in the back following an argument.

In June 2015 the sentence was vacated after an attorney for Barnette successfully argued that the trial judge didn’t make a determination on whether Barnette would benefit from his youthful offender status. The attorney’s filing also raised questions about Barnette’s defense.

State law requires judges to determine whether defendants under 21 would benefit from youthful offender status, the filing states.

Barnette was re-sentenced to a term of 20 years and appeared to be released from state prison a day or so after the ruling in July 2015.

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