A northern Kentucky man has been granted a new trial
in the death of his girlfriend's 13-month-old daughter - a child the Kentucky Supreme Court described as having a "a tragically short life."
The high court ruled that jurors in Grant County should have been allowed to consider second-degree manslaughter
in the case of 27-year-old Douglas Brandon Barnhill of Crittenden in the death of Kiara Smith in 2009.
The jury handed down a guilty verdict to a charge of wanton murder. Barnhill is serving life in prison
at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in La Grange.
If Barnhill is retried, the court ruled, jurors must be instructed on second-degree manslaughter as a lesser-included offense.
Under Kentucky law, someone can be convicted of wanton murder if they act with extreme indifference to human life and engage in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person and causes that death.
Second-degree manslaughter omits the requirement of extreme indifference to human life.
Jurors were instructed on reckless homicide, wanton murder and intentional murder. The high court found that jurors did not believe Barnhill acted recklessly or intentionally.
"And, under the facts presented, we conclude that a reasonable juror could believe that while Barnhill behaved wantonly, he did not act with extreme indifference to human life," the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.
Prosecutors at trial argued that Barnhill hit Kiara several times in the head, causing the injuries. Barnhill's attorneys argued that he tripped and fell on the child and that someone else might have delivered the fatal blows.
No one disputed that Barnhill wrapped Kiara in a blanket after calling 911, then met the first-responders and was upset at the hospital.
"A reasonable juror could conclude that these actions negated the extreme indifference to human life element of wanton murder," the justices wrote.
The high court also admonished prosecutors about the use of emotion in the case.
The justices said the use of demonstrative evidence is permissible, but too much emotion combined with theatrics could lead to another retrial.
"Without a doubt, jury trials are emotionally charged events and, perhaps, none more so than one related to the death of a child," the justices wrote. "It is vital that the emotion of the trial never overcomes the defendant's fundamental right to due process."