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'we all tried'

Jury fails to reach verdict in Abbott trial

Debate on what constituted self-defense loomed large

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Abbott exits

Joel Evan Abbott leaves the Calhoun County Courthouse around 1 p.m. Saturday. A jury decided it could not reach a decision on Abbott's guilt or innocence in the shooting death of Deatrice Barclay of Saks in January 2016. An unidentified juror is shown holding the door open.

At 12:29 p.m. Saturday, Judge Debra Jones declared a mistrial in the trial of Joel Evan Abbott, charged with murder in the shooting death of Deatrice Barclay of Saks in January 2016. 

A deadlocked jury concluded just after noon that its members would be unable to reach a verdict in the case. 

"We do not feel we will be able to vote unanimously," the letter to the judge read.

State prosecutors J. Patrick Lamb and Shawn Allen declined to comment as the case is pending. It is not known if the state will move for retrial. 

Both the state and defense attorneys were given the opportunity to speak to the jurors separately once Judge Jones released them from their duties. Question sessions typically offer attorneys on both sides insight on what they could do differently if the case is tried again.

“We’re disappointed in not getting a ‘not guilty’ verdict, but we’re ready and prepared to try it again,” defense attorney Bill Broome said. “We respect the jury’s verdict. They deliberated long and hard. Jurors do the best they can. They’re the backbone of the criminal justice system.”  

Deliberations were heated as raised voices were heard through closed doors, even after notice had been given to the judge that they could not reach a unanimous decision. 

A couple of jurors spoke of fellow juror Jim Pitts as being most vocal and demonstrative in his views during deliberation. Pitts told The Star afterward he wanted to avoid the racial angle in reaching a verdict.

“The sticking point was that they tried to turn it into a black and white thing,” Pitts said. “We shot that down,” Pitts said, referring to certain jurors who agreed with him.

Another juror, Michael Bush, said it was his duty to give justice to both Deatrice Barclay and to Joel Abbott. 

“I am disappointed. We were here to do a civic duty, and we all tried,” Bush said. “But, we all just didn’t agree. You want to do justice for everybody, and that’s the total goal. Hopefully the next jury can get it right.” 

Bush said the voting numbers changed several times throughout the approximately nine-hour deliberation, with it being nine to three favoring Abbott’s guilt on a charge of manslaughter at one point on Friday evening. The minority favored acquittal. Bush said he was unsure of the final count.  

“A lot of the issue was whether it was self-defense or not and we just came up with different ways to look at it,” Bush said.

The state had stressed to the jury that to claim self-defense, one must be entirely free from fault. Otherwise, the state said, the jury could render a verdict on whether Abbott was guilty of either intentional murder, or the lesser charge of provocation manslaughter.

In the end, the jury collectively told the court, it could not reach a decision.

Deatrice Barclay’s uncle, Charles Barclay, said he believed the mistrial could be attributed to the inclusion of certain jurors on the panel 

“I think it really started from the beginning with the selection of the jury,” Barclay said. “The state said there seemed to be some discrimination in the selection of the juror questions. It started from day one that put us in a pickle of trying to have a fair trial.”

Barclay said he found defense attorney Bill Broome’s words distasteful at times and that he “was way out of line.”

Barclay said he thought the prosecution did the best job they could with the hand they were dealt. 

“I think the prosecution did the best job they could do from the first day,” Barclay said. “We would have had 15 whites and zero blacks if the prosecution weren’t here to bring it down to 11 whites and four blacks.”

Barclay said with the demographics being so one-sided, the cultures were different. He said given the confederate flag and the history of what it stands for, “it affects a lot of black people.”

The flag was a key image in this case because a large one flew from the back of the truck Abbott was driving on the night of the shooting. Abbott testified that the flag was not there as a political statement, but rather to honor his then-girlfriend’s uncle, who was terminally ill by that point and had requested the flag be flown in his funeral procession.

“It’s time to move on from those days of hate and racism.” Barclay said. “We’re ready for the next trial. And Josh Parker — he needs to get ready, too,” he said, referring to the Abbott’s friend who has also been charged with murder in the death of Deatrice Barclay. 

Broome said that the mistrial of Abbott would have no bearing on Parker’s trial, but the state could not be reached for comment.