LAFOLLETTE (WATE) – Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood on Thursday threw out the guilty plea by Campbell County High School shooter Kenny Bartley, making way for a re-trial.
As jury selection was underway for Bartley’s original trial in 2007, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges in the shooting that killed Assistant Principal Ken Bruce and wounded Principal Gary Seale and Assistant Principal Jim Pierce in 2005.
Bartley was a 14-year-old student at the school when he shot the administrators and 15 when he was convicted.
Now being represented by attorney Greg Isaacs, Bartley, who is now 19, testified Thursday in his bid for a re-trial.
Bartley told the court his former attorney, Mike Hatmaker, originally offered him a plea agreement that would have meant 15 years behind bars and eligibility for parole in eight years. However, the deal was not in writing.
Bartley said he accepted the deal and waived his transfer hearing.
He thought it was over after verbally accepting the 15-year plea deal, Bartley testified, but later his mother told him the deal was revoked because Jo Bruce, the widow of Ken Bruce, did not want the district attorney general to offer it.
Another plea deal was offered for 45 years that Bartley said he declined.
The trial moved forward, and after the first day of jury selection, Hatmaker offered the same deal and told Bartley he should accept.
Bartley said he was in a room next to the courtroom with both attorneys, Pierce and Seals and members of their families, and Jo Bruce, about nine victims. Bartley’s parents were not present.
He said the victims discussed whether they would allow him the plea deal, and “They decided they would let me take the plea.”
Bartley testified that he was taken into another room where he signed the plea deal. He said his parents had no idea there was another deal on the table, and he was only allowed to meet his mom after signing that deal.
He also told the court no one explained his rights. His attorney instructed him to “say yes to everything the judge asks you.”
Bartley said Hatmaker told him, “This is the last deal right here. You’re lucky to get it.”
A prosecutor asked, “No one forced you, twisted your arm, or physically laid hands on you?” Bartley said, “No.”
When asked why he changed his mind about the plea deal, Bartley said, “Once I realized what I had truly got myself into, I didn’t want to do it. I felt pressured into doing it. I was so nervous and scared I didn’t know what else to do. I put my trust in my lawyer and he let me down.”
After a lunch break, Hatmaker was called to the stand. He admitted Bartley was originally offered a plea deal for 15 years, but he said the district attorney general later revoked that verbal offer.
Hatmaker said he wasn’t “particularly pleased with the plea,” but feared Bartley could be convicted of first degree murder.
Bartley’s former attorney admitted asking for a continuance would have been better than discussing the deal with his client in court, but, “It never crossed my mind.”
Hatmaker choked up and wiped away a tear, saying Bartley’s family members are his close friends. “Kenneth, I love you,” he said as he finished his testimony.
Before he announced his decision, Judge Blackwood said, “I still have no question Mr. Bartley knew what he was doing when he entered his guilty plea. The question is whether it was intelligent.”
“If I’d known there wasn’t detailed discussion with Mr. Bartley about the plea deal, this court’s conduct would have been different,” the judge said.
Bartley had made previous requests to withdraw his guilty plea, but the courts rejected them. In 2009, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied his motion for an appeal after his first two attempts were denied by lower courts.
He was sentenced to 45 years for murder and two counts of attempted murder.
The shooting victims, Gary Seale and Jim Pierce, along with Ken Bruce’s widow, declined to comment after Judge Blackwood’s decision.