Da’mari Barnes was 15 when he shot and killed 19-year-old Jamey Bennett at a bonfire party in the woods near Matanzas High School in February 2022. He was charged as an adult with manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
Today, Barnes, now 17, pleaded guilty to the charge before Circuit Judge Chris France. It is an open plea, meaning that when Barnes is sentenced on Jan. 2, the judge will have wide discretion to sentence Barnes either as an adult or as a youthful offender, with wide disparities between the two options.
Circuity Judge Terence Perkins was scheduled to hold today’s hearing. France was sitting in for him. It is customary that the judge who takes the plea also imposes sentence. Notably today, Steven Robinson, Barnes’s attorney, asked that Perkins, not France, impose sentence in January.
France’s sentences can be harsh, but so can Perkins’s, if perhaps less overtly so: France is generally hard-angled where Perkins allows for the occasional roundness–not quite splitting the difference between what prosecutors and defense attorneys ask for in open pleas, but at times not foreclosing on what the defense asks for, either, especially depending on the tenor of testimonies at sentencing.
That almost certainly explains why Robinson wanted a Perkins sentence as a condition of the plea. It also explains why the defense asked for the entire morning session on Jan. 2, suggesting that there will be numerous witnesses. There have been cases where the forbearance of the victim’s family members has played a deciding role in lowering penalties. But the fact that it is an open plea also means that the two sides could not agree to a final plea deal: The prosecution will argue for a sentence as an adult, and the defense push for a sentence as a juvenile.
If Barnes were sentenced as an adult, he scores under sentencing guidelines a minimum of 138 months–11.5 years–in state prison. The judge may impose a sentence of up to 30 years. He may also impose a lesser sentence if he finds mitigating circumstances. If sentenced as an adult, Barnes will serve the beginning of his prison time in a facility for juveniles, then be transferred to an adult prison either when he turns 18 or 24.
If the judge sentences him as a youthful offender, Barnes faces up to six years in prison, all served in a prison for youthful offenders, where the oldest offender is 24. The sentence could be split between prison time and probation. If Barnes violates probation within a youthful sentence, his penalties would be limited to youthful penalties. In other words, adult sentencing guidelines could not kick in.
Barnes arrived in court today with a family member. He has been out on $500,000 bond since last November. He answered France’s questions, saying “yes, sir” a number of times after signing his plea form. France went through the usual colloquy to ensure that Barnes understood that he still faces a maximum sentence of up to 30 years, enabling France to find Barnes “alert and intelligent” as he accepted the plea.
The prosecution had been ready to call no fewer than 60 witnesses in the case, almost a dozen of them juveniles or young adults who had been at the bonfire at the time of the shooting, including, presumably, the girl Bennett was said by police to have been trying to protect when he was shot. The prosecution has witness statements initially provided police and a two-terabyte hard drive of electronic messages and other evidence making its case, among a lot of other evidence.
The shooting took place in the early hours of Feb. 5, 2022, in the wooded area parallel to 3895 North Old Kings Road. Bennett was pronounced deceased that morning at 2:46 a.m. According to Barnes’s arrest report, he had driven (in his mother’s car) to the bonfire that night with some friends. There was dancing around the bonfire. One of the girls dancing bumped into Barnes. Witnesses told detectives that they saw Barnes yell and shove the girl, prompting Bennett to defend her and to tell Barnes that he shouldn’t put his hand on her.
“There was a physical altercation in which Jamey punched Da’mari approximately one (1) time,” the arrest report states. “Da’mari fell to the ground, and upon getting back up, he retrieved his firearm and shot Jamey” once. He had put the gun in his sweatshirt’s pocket while driving to the bonfire. Barnes and two others then fled the scene in the car he’d driven in with.
Barnes had previously been held on $500,000 bond and housed at a juvenile offender jail in Duval County. His family attempted to have his bond reduced. An additional felony charge complicated the case when he was charged with felony battery on an inmate, prompting the prosecution to seek a revocation of the bond. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor. Perkins denied both sides’ motions, leaving the bond at $500,000 in June 2022. The following month, the court declared Barnes indigent, allowing his defense to recover some costs. The defense again tried 13 months ago to have his bond reduced or eliminated, and Perkins again denied it.
Last November 3, Barnes’s mother mortgaged her Palm Coast home and secured the $50,000 necessary to bail Barnes out.