Former CMPD officer found guilty of death by vehicle after hitting, killing man

CHARLOTTE — Jurors have convicted a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer who hit and killed a college student in his patrol car.

In July 2017, Phillip Barker was speeding while on his way to a call when he hit and killed James Short on Morehead Street near Uptown, according to police. Investigators said Short, 28, was drunk at the time but was walking in a crosswalk.

Barker was charged with involuntary manslaughter and misdemeanor death by vehicle. He was placed on unpaid leave that year, and a grand jury indicted him on involuntary manslaughter charges. In 2018, he entered a plea of not guilty.


Jury reaches verdict, Barker found guilty

Shortly after 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, the 12 jurors reached a unanimous verdict in the case.

Channel 9′s Hunter Sáenz was in the courtroom as Barker was found guilty of misdemeanor death by vehicle. He was not found guilty of felony involuntary manslaughter.

After the verdict was read, the sentencing phase of the trial began. Death by vehicle is a Class A1 misdemeanor, which carries a possible sentence of up to 150 days in jail in North Carolina.

Barker spoke directly to the judge before sentencing, apologizing for what he did.

“I do apologize to their family and to my family. It was an accident,” he said.

Barker was sentenced to 60 days in jail, but that was suspended upon his completion of 12 months unsupervised probation. His driver’s license will be suspended for 12 months and he must complete 50 hours of community service.

Before his sentencing, Barker asked the judge for leniency, explaining the toll the last five years have taken. He had been on unpaid administrative leave with CMPD waiting for the process to play out.

“For 5.5 years, I’ve been pretty much on probation going job to job, trying to make ends meet,” Barker said.

Barker walked out of court alongside his fiancée after the sentencing that afternoon.

Assistant District Attorney Bill Bunting said he respects the outcome even though the jury did not find Barker guilty of the more serious charge, involuntary manslaughter.

“They heard the entirety of the evidence and they rendered their decision and I believe it to be a completely reasonable and sound decision,” Bunting said.

He shook Barker’s hand after the jury was dismissed.

“I think Mr. Barker is a good man who made a mistake. And I don’t think that should follow anyone throughout the rest of their life,” Bunting said. “I hope others can forgive him as I hope the family can forgive him.”

The family of James Short was not in court Wednesday or for the few days before that. Prosecutors said it’s understandably been a very hard time for them.

Barker’s attorneys declined to comment.

Chief Johnny Jennings released a statement in response to the verdict, mentioning that Barker submitted his resignation Wednesday afternoon:

“Earlier today, CMPD Officer Phillip Barker was found guilty of misdemeanor death by vehicle. In 2017, Officer Barker was responding to a call for service, going 100 mph in a 35 mph zone when he struck and killed James Short.

“Although this case comes to a close after a decision was made today in the courtroom, this is a tragedy that both the Barker and Short families will carry with them for the rest of their lives. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

“After the incident, Officer Barker was placed on unpaid administrative leave and cited for termination. This afternoon, Officer Barker submitted his letter of resignation and is no longer employed with the CMPD.”

Since the crash, the City of Charlotte gave Short’s family a nearly $1 million settlement.

(WATCH: Jury deliberates in trial for CMPD officer accused of hitting, killing man)

Closing arguments; jury begins deliberations

The fate of Officer Barker was put into the hands of the jury Tuesday. The jury was tasked with deciding on three things: Is Barker guilty of involuntary manslaughter, is he guilty of death by a motor vehicle, or neither?

Sáenz was in court for the closing arguments Tuesday morning. Both sides made their final arguments to the jury.

Prosecutors began by talking about the life taken -- James Michael Short -- arguing he’d still be alive today if it weren’t for the Barker’s actions.

“He had the right to expect that this defendant would actually use the training that was specifically designed to protect all the people that he was sworn to serve,” Prosecutor Glenn Cole said.

Instead, prosecutors said Barker failed to use his police training the night he hit and killed Short. Cole played the body camera video of the incident five different times, instructing the jury to focus on different things each time it played. The first time was to refresh the jury. The second was to focus on the sound of the engine. The third was to focus on the speedometer. The fourth, to focus on the officer’s computer. The fifth was to focus on where officer’s hands were.

“If the defendant hadn’t been going 100 miles an hour, he would have be able to avoid this crash,” Cole said.

Cole told the jury the incident was foreseeable and Barker showed no regard for the safety of others as he rushed to another emergency -- a requirement by law. But the defense saw it differently.

Defense Attorney Michael Greene started his closing arguments by stepping behind Barker and saying, “He waited five and a half years for justice. The state of North Carolina gave you five witnesses.”

Greene made the argument that Barker could have not foreseen this accident, saying Morehead was a straight shot, had all green lights, there was nobody in sight walking on the street, and the weather was clear.

“If it’s your loved one, you’re not going to say that officer was driving too fast, you’re going to say they can’t get there fast enough,” Greene said.

Greene said state law has an officer exemption to traffic laws if they’re acting as a police officer who was responding to an emergency service vehicle and traveling to an emergency, so long as that officer is exercising due regard for the safety of others during the response. He said if that’s the case, there’s no way Barker should be found guilty as he responded to a priority one call when he hit Short.

Greene reminded the jury pedestrians have a responsibility, too.

“Your responsibility as a citizen is to stop, look and listen,” he said.

The defense poked holes in the evidence, ultimately arguing prosecutors didn’t prove Barker’s guilt. But prosecutors left the evidence in the hand of the jury, asking them to hold Barker accountable.

Closing arguments ended around 11:45 a.m. Tuesday, and the jury went into deliberation shortly afterward.

(WATCH: Both sides rest in trial of CMPD officer accused of hitting, killing CPCC student)

Both sides rest; no witnesses for defense

Court began Monday with the cross examination of crime scene investigator Shari Walton. She was released just before 10 a.m.

Then the judge, prosecutors and defense held a conference over the evidence of Barker’s speed. The jury was removed from the courtroom during this discussion. The state then rested its case.

Shortly afterward, the jury was called back into the room. Surprising the courtroom, around 10:30 a.m., the defense also rested its case. Channel 9′s Hannah Goetz could see the judge’s face drop in surprise, along with many others in the courtroom.

That meant all the evidence had been presented to the jury and the defense would not be calling any witnesses. The prosecution made an argument to the judge that the defense said they would call multiple witnesses, including a toxicologist, during opening statements. The defense even said the court would hear from Barker.

“You’re going to hear from Philip right up here, he’s going to put his hand on God’s word and tell you a chapter and a verse about what happened,” one of Barker’s attorneys said during opening statements.

But the decision means Phillip Barker will not get on the stand.

To understand why the defense made the move, Goetz talked to a Charlotte defense attorney, who isn’t connected to the case, to get details.

“Experience tells any defense attorney you never want to put on evidence or your client if you don’t have to,” Yolanda Trotman said.

Trotman said usually, when the defense decides not to present evidence, it’s for a good reason.

“There is definitely a strategy behind it, and more likely they are going to challenge the sufficiency of the state’s evidence,” she said.

The state presented a number of witnesses. Their evidence has included crime scene photos and body camera video from Barker and another responding officer.

Trotman said if the defense saw a hole in any of this evidence, that could be what they focus on in their closing arguments.

“There could be some holes in the state’s case that the defense is going to focus on, and focus on that reasonable doubt,” she said. “It could be a single element that the state has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The trial was expected to go until the end of the week, with a push for it to be done by Friday.

Because the defense did not present any evidence or witnesses, on Tuesday, they got to give the closing argument and speak to the jury last -- which Trotman said is a huge bonus during a trial.

(WATCH: Witnesses speak in trial of CMPD officer accused of hitting, killing college student)

Witnesses take the stand

In court Friday, for the first time, Goetz learned what happened in the hours before the crash.

The court heard from John Jacik, a friend of Short’s who was with him most of the night before Short died. He was the first witness to take the stand Friday.

Jacik explained he and Short were hanging out while Jacik was in town visiting in July 2017. Jacik said they had planned to go to a club and were in a hotel room taking vodka shots before going out.

Jacik said he noticed Short was already drunk around 8 p.m., which was when they called an Uber for a ride to The Bar at 316. He said they split up when they got inside the bar, and Jacik said the next time he saw Short, Short was being kicked out of the bar for being too drunk.

Jacik said he was taking care of Short outside but his phone was almost dead. He said he left Short on a bench and went into the bar to find a phone charger so he could call an Uber back to the hotel. He said when he got back outside, Short was gone. Jacik said he looked for him but eventually returned to the hotel and went to sleep.

The next witness was CMPD Officer Steven Kelly, who was working the same shift as Barker the night of the incident. Both officers were driving down Morehead Street responding to a report of a car into a building before police say Barker hit Short.

“Officer Barker, I could tell, was driving a little faster than I was,” Kelly said. “As we were driving down Morehead our distance was increasing.”

The prosecution asked Kelly why he wasn’t going as fast as Barker was.

“Backed off because he reached the threshold of speed he felt comfortable driving,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s body camera footage shows him following Barker until the moment of impact.

“I saw his vehicle swerve abruptly, I saw debris come from over his car and under his car and he came to a stop,” he said.

The video goes on to show Kelly getting out to check on Barker. He then notices Short lying in the road.

You can hear Kelly in the body camera video as he gets out of the car. “Did you hit him?” he asks. The response: “Yeah.” “Oh my God,” Kelly says.

The last witness Friday was a crime scene investigator who documented the scene after the incident occurred. Many of those details are too graphic to report, but showed major damage to Barker’s patrol car and a diagram of where Short’s personal items were found.

(WATCH: Body cam video released in trial of CMPD officer accused of causing deadly crash)

Opening arguments; body camera video released

In court Dec. 8, footage of the crash from Barker’s body camera was shared for the first time.

Sáenz was in the courtroom alongside the families of both the victim and the defendant that day, who stayed while the video was played.

Prosecutors also laid the groundwork for their case, maintaining Officer Barker was in the wrong. But the defense argued Short should have never been in the road when he was hit.

Prosecutors opened the trial talking about Short, who was 28 when he died.

“He is dead because of the actions of somebody we trusted to protect us,” said his brother Joshua, who took the stand to describe his late brother. “He was just a normal, happy-go-lucky guy.”

Prosecutor Bill Bunting told the jury the call Barker was responding to was roughly a mile down Morehead Street. On the way, prosecutors said Barker floored it, reaching speeds of nearly 100 miles per hour in a 35 mph zone.

In body camera video from that night, you can hear Barker picking up speed before he slammed into Short.

“He ended Michael Short’s life instantaneously in an extremely violent crash,” Barker said.

But Barker’s defense argued Short was drunk and had just left a bar. Defense Attorney George Laughrun said Barker had the green light when he hit Short, who police say was in a crosswalk with the hand signal flashing.

“Pedestrians have a duty to look both ways,” Laughrun said. “They have a duty to be vigilant, they have a duty to yield to pedestrian traffic. They have a duty to yield to blue lights and sirens.”

CMPD Officer Tommie Horton, who helped teach Barker police-driving in the academy, was called to the stand. He told the jury officers can speed to emergencies but only if the speed is reasonable and prudent. He said in this case, Barker broke that rule.

When asked if Barker’s conduct meets the rules of their directives, Horton said “it does not” because, “He didn’t slow down at a controlled intersection.”

However, the defense argued the emergency he was responding to warranted his speed. Horton did say speed is at the officer’s discretion.

“That’s for the officer to decide,” he said.

Jurors selected

Twelve jurors were selected Dec. 7 to decide the outcome of the trial.

Dozens of potential jurors were questioned Dec. 6 in the rare case of an officer standing trial. Two more alternates were chosen later, with opening arguments slated to begin Dec. 8.

A CMPD officer hasn’t been tried on criminal charges in seven years.

“This is a big step to be putting this in a jury’s hands,” said Missy Owens, a criminal defense attorney who is not involved with the case, but gave Channel 9 insight into the process.

“I think, because people tend to have strong opinions about law enforcement going many different directions,” she said. “The lawyers and the court really want to probe into those life experiences to determine how those personal opinions impact their deliberations.”

Owens says during jury selection, the prosecutors are trying to find jurors with accountability, while the defense will want people who are sympathetic to the intense job.

“The state is going to look for people who want to hold officers accountable for their actions and think critically about where the limits exist near their behavior and balancing the discharge of their duties,” she said. “If I’m the defense lawyer, I think I’m going to want people who understand that police officers have really difficult jobs, they have important jobs and they’re often making split-second decisions.”

Prosecutors spent much of Dec. 5 asking possible jurors about their experiences with police. On Dec. 6, the defense was expected to ask a majority of the questions.

At the crux of the case, jurors will be left with one question, Owen says.

“Where is that balance between efforts to fulfill their duty and behaving in a way that may put others in harm?” she said.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(WATCH BELOW: Jury selection begins in trial of CMPD officer accused of killing CPCC student in crash)

Hunter Sáenz

Hunter Sáenz, wsoctv.com

Hunter is a reporter for Channel 9.

Hannah Goetz

Hannah Goetz, wsoctv.com

Hannah is a reporter for WSOC-TV.