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Barnes acquitted on felony; guilty of lesser counts in child's death

Nov 18, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

Jurors Friday evening determined that William Dean Barnes of Lander was not guilty of felony aggravated vehicular homicide stemming from a Dec. 20 crash where he struck and killed an 11-year-old exiting a school bus while she crossed a highway to her Crowheart home.

Barnes was convicted on several lesser charges, all misdemeanors.

Comprised of seven women and five men, the jury took nearly eight hours Friday to render their verdict, which was announced at 7:30 p.m. in Lander's 9th Judicial District Court.

Jurors also found Barnes, 53, to be not guilty of exercise of due care by drivers, a misdemeanor that alleged he drove a vehicle without exercising due care to avoid colliding with Makayla Marie Strahle and failed to exercise proper precaution upon observing the child.

Misdemeanors

Barnes was found guilty of homicide by vehicle, which is a misdemeanor asserting he drove a vehicle in a criminally negligent manner. The charge carries a punishment of up to a year in the county jail and a fine up to $2,000.

Barnes was found guilty of misdemeanors maximum speed/too fast for conditions and passing a stopped school bus with flashing red lights. Each charge carries up to 20 days of jail time and fines from $200 up to $750.

District Court Judge Norman E. Young continued Barnes's $2,500 unsecured bond until sentencing, which will occur after a pre-sentencing investigation is conducted.

Barnes could have faced a 20-year prison sentence if he had been convicted of the felony charge.

The verdict follows four days of examining evidence, testimony heard from more than a dozen witnesses including Barnes himself and Young denying a motion for acquittal.

More than 30 people sat in the audience as the verdict was read Friday evening.

Courtroom scene

Once Young adjourned court, Barnes embraced his attorney Devon Petersen of Lander at the defense table as supporters in attendance for both him and the victim started conversing about the decision.

Before the case was submitted to the jury for deliberation at 11:40 a.m. Friday, Petersen in his closing argument called the incident a tragedy that Barnes will live with for the rest of his life.

"There will never be a day that goes by that he won't think of this," Petersen said.

According to court testimony and charging documents, Barnes was eastbound on Highway 26 four miles east of Crowheart when he fatally struck the girl as she crossed the roadway to her home after exiting her school bus, which was stopped in the westbound lane.

During the trial, Petersen and defense attorney Dave Hooper argued their client did not see the school bus's lights as he passed it and collided with the child. Several factors were brought up, including limited visibility due to patchy fog and the bus's bright headlights.

Fremont County deputy attorneys Kathy Kavanagh and Thomas Majdic called several witnesses to the stand who testified about seeing the flashing lights, weather conditions that evening and data from Barnes's truck indicating he didn't apply his brakes prior to the collision and was traveling 57 mph when he struck the girl.

Kavanagh argued gthat Barnes consciously chose to ignore the stopped bus and that Makayla paid for the risk he took by passing the bus.

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