Kenneth Bartley is one step closer to a trial.
Following Monday’s opinion from the state court of criminal appeals, the convicted school shooter has been green lighted to have his case heard by a jury.
It is a battle that began before the ink on his plea agreement had dried in 2007.
Just weeks after the then 15- year- old admitted he was guilty of second-degree murder and two counts of attempted second degree, Bartley began asking for a new trial. Under the terms of his plea agreement, he was to serve 45 years in jail.
However, Monday’s decision could change that. If Bartley does face a jury he is risking a tougher verdict and lengthier sentence.
It is a gamble the young man is willing to take. “I’m willing to take my chances at trial,” court records reveal Bartley has said.
For the families, the news was upsetting.
“I really, I’m still processing that. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. We’re gonna wait and see what happens,” said Jo Bruce, widow of Ken Bruce. “We’ve already survived the worst. What comes, we’ll face and God has a…he’s been with us all the way.”
Bartley has contended he didn’t know what he was doing when he admitted to fatally wounding Campbell County High School Assistant Principal Ken Bruce and severely wounding Assistant Principal Jim Pierce and Principal Gary Seals.
At the crux of Bartley’s latest requests for a new trial, is the assertion that his attorney at the time, Michael Hatmaker, failed to provide effective assistance to him. Throughout the paperwork filed by Bartley’s newest attorney, Greg Isaacs, is the claim Hatmaker failed to communicate other plea offers to Bartley and his family, failed to thoroughly investigate the circumstances behind the charges and neglected to raise the issue of his client’s diminished capacity.
Within the filings, a picture is a painted of a tragically flawed young man unfamiliar with the court system. It is also conveyed that when Bartley was presented with the eleventh hour plea deal, he was placed in a room with prosecutors, the victims and Bruce’s widow; his parents weren’t included in the conversation, according to Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals records. Bartley said during that meeting he felt “horrible” and “nervous.” “that’s the most pressure I’ve ever had on me at one time in my life,” Bartley said in court records.
Revisiting the affidavit of Dr. James Murray, a forensic psychologist, the CCA noted he had outlined Bartley’s emotional and developmental issues. Murray’s opinion was when these problems were combined with dramatic surroundings of a first-degree murder trial and the push to decide about accepting the offer Bartley couldn’t have knowingly and voluntarily entered into the plea.
However, the CCA did rule that Murray’s affidavit shouldn’t have been admitted as evidence during the post conviction relief hearing.
The higher court allowed a win for Bartley’s side when it agreed the young man had failed to receive effective assistance from Hatmaker. Attorneys for the state argued the record didn’t support the allegations against Hatmaker, but Isaacs countered Hatmaker neglected his client “in the manner and method in which he communicated the final plea offer and advised or failed to advise Bartley and his family regarding the plea,” the CCA opinion said.
Special Judge Jon K. Blackwood, who initially accepted Bartley’s guilty plea, later reversed his own decision because he believed it wasn’t a decision the young man was capable to make, especially considering his parents weren’t involved in the process.
The CCA agreed Bartley’s plea wasn’t executed under the proper conditions but saw a different reason. It determined Bartley accepted the plea because of “trial counsel’s ineffective assistance.” Hatmaker should have included the young man’s parents and his attending therapist in the plea discussion, Judge Camille R. McMullen said in the opinion.
The failure to do this meant he was deprived of the consideration and evaluation of the offer along with its consequences.
McMullen said the evidence was clear that Bartley’s plea wasn’t one he could have agreed to knowingly, voluntarily or intelligently and this was because of “ineffective assistance rendered by trial counsel.”
Bartley is currently being housed at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Prior to this ruling he was eligible for parole in July 2032.
The district attorney general still has the option to appeal the CCA’s ruling.
“Obviously our office is disappointed with the decision. The decision to offer and enter a plea is done so the families of the victims can have closure and don’t suffer through long time frames of uncertainty,” said Eighth Judicial District Attorney General Lori Phillips-Jones.