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One year after 11-year-old girl's death, both sides of case praise jury's verdict

Dec 28, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

A year after the death of a girl on a rural highway, Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn said he is satisfied with the verdict rendered by a jury in the case of the man charged in the incident.

On Nov. 16, after a nearly week-long trial, a jury acquitted William Dean Barnes, 53, of Lander, of aggravated vehicular homicide and exercise of due care by drivers.

Barnes was found guilty of misdemeanors that included homicide by vehicle, maximum speed/too fast for conditions, and passing a stopped school bus with flashing red lights.

"This was a very difficult case to investigate, charge and take to trial," Varn said. "The fact that the jury deliberated for nearly eight hours shows exactly the wrestling they went through."

Barnes faces fines and 405 days in jail.

The charges stem from a Dec. 20, 2011, crash near Crowheart the truck Barnes was driving struck and killed an 11-year-old Wind River School student who was exiting a school bus and crossing U.S. Highway 26 toward her home.

"I trust completely the jury process and respect their decision, especially in the very difficult cases like this one," Varn said.

Lander-based defense attorney Devon Petersen called it a "fair" verdict.

"It was probably the right thing that needed to happen," Petersen said. "We had the trial because we felt he wasn't guilty of aggravated vehicular homicide."

Barnes faced 20 years if convicted of the felony charge.

At trial, Petersen argued that Barnes did not see the school bus's flashing lights as he passed it and collided with the child. Several factors were presented, including limited visibility because of patchy fog.

Prosecutors said Barnes consciously chose to ignore the stopped bus and called several witnesses to the stand who testified about seeing the flashing lights. Witnesses also discussed weather conditions and data from Barnes's pickup truck that indicated he didn't apply his brakes before the collision and was traveling 57 mph when he struck the girl.

Petersen said he wouldn't have felt right if his client were acquitted of all charges, including the homicide by vehicle charge. He said the jury was good at listening to both sides.

"It really reaffirms my faith in the jury system," he added.

District Court Judge Norman E. Young ordered that presentencing investigation to take place before he sentences Barnes.

Petersen said this kind of investigation looks into Barnes's background, including his upbringing and criminal history or substance abuse. The Wyoming Department of Corrections conducts the examination.

"Then they will make a recommendation to the court for sentencing," Petersen said. "It's good because it gives the judge more information of what kind of person this is."

A sentencing hearing for Barnes has not yet been set, but Petersen believes it could take place in four to six weeks.

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