The Barker Family story continues. Click here to read Chapter 11.
Federal Trial of Barker
The smuggling trial for Richard Barker was held at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach before Judge Edward B. Davis. It began early on August 22, 1994. The lead Assistant U.S. Attorney (AUSA) was Thomas A. Blair, who was exceedingly respected and famous in south Florida for rarely accepting plea bargains for his many cases. If AUSA Blair indicted someone, those were the charges they pled to or fought in court unless there was a tremendously compelling reason for him to change his stance. He was not a fan of plea bargains, something that drove defense attorneys crazy as well as his supervisors at times. Barker was represented by appointed counsel Carlos Llorente, a very competent Miami-based attorney.
Prior to the trial beginning, attorney Llorente explained that his defense strategy was that Barker was not the captain of the motor vessel that smuggled the aliens into the United States from the Bahamas. Llorente said that his investigation had been very fruitful and that there would be some surprises during the trial. The media speculated that AUSA Blair may call Vernon Lockhardt to testify about Barker’s involvement in another alien smuggling load that landed Lockhardt in prison, even though Barker was never prosecuted for it.
During the trial, Barker continued to profess his complete innocence. One of the aliens, who previously identified Barker from a photographic lineup as the boat captain, could not point him out in the court room during the trial. Barker was sitting clearly at the defense table with a haircut, trimmed mustache, half-moon glasses, and an extra 20 or so pounds. The failure to identify Barker supported the Llorente’s defense of mistaken identity. U.S. Customs Service (USCS) and U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) investigators testified that Barker had changed in appearance since the alien smuggling night. He was now clean cut in his blue suit and the lack of cigarettes in jail did not help his waistline.
Two other aliens identified Barker and provided heart-wrenching testimony of the offloading of the passengers and the drowning of the adults and children. One witness relived the night with Barker ordering them to jump out into the deep surf and the screams for help. The witness explained how a child fell out of his arms and was lost in the waves. At the end of the testimony, the witness identified Barker as the boat captain and stated that they called him “Capitaine Sauter” or “Captain Jump Off.”
USCS and USBP investigators provided testimony about the customs entry inspection, alien landings, four deaths, go-fast hull painting, and many other aspects of the joint investigation. The testimony addressed other aspects of the investigation and information that the investigators had received about Richard Barker – when the objections to that testimony were overruled by the judge and permitted to be heard.
AUSA Blair intended to introduce the electronic navigational device that Barker had sold to a pawn shop before his arrest. After investigators had located, retrieved, and analyzed the device during the investigation, a navigational history was identified showing almost the exact location where the aliens were offloaded from the motor vessel. Attorney Llorente objected to and blocked its entry into the evidence since the prosecution could not prove that Barker had actually programmed the unit.
Attorney Llorente presented two witnesses for the defense. The first witness was a private investigator who testified about USCS records and procedures. The second witness was a paralegal who explained how long it took to travel between Florida and the Bahamas on Llorente’s 33-foot boat. AUSA Blair objected since Barker’s boat was smaller than the attorney’s boat. Barker did not take the stand. Llorente then rested his case with the continuation of the mistaken identity defense.
In a strong and moving closing argument, AUSA Blair stressed Barker’s negligence during the alien smuggling venture. Barker delivered the aliens into the sea without asking if they could swim or providing them with personal floatation devices or life preservers. AUSA Blair utilized two adult and two child life preservers during the closing argument to demonstrate that the investment of five dollars each could have saved the four lives. Barker charged the transportation fees, but did not take the time to provide the inexpensive life-savers. There were many tearful jurors staring at the four empty life preservers sitting on the rail of the jury box.
At the end of the trial, the jurors were advised to consider only eight charges of the 32-count indictment. Judge Davis dismissed the other charges when the government failed to prove that 24 of the 27 Haitians were illegal aliens. The charges for the three Haitian alien witnesses present in court remained for consideration. This surprise decision left one conspiracy count, three alien smuggling counts, and four negligent homicide counts for the jury.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for six hours after the three-day trial. Barker was convicted on August 25, 1994 for all of the remaining counts. Barker sat emotionless, peering over his reading glasses, as the guilty verdicts were read. His defense attorney promised to appeal the verdict.
Sentencing of Barker
Richard Barker returned to the federal courthouse for his sentencing on October 28, 1994. During the sentencing, Barker reversed his trial position and admitted that he did in fact smuggle the Haitian aliens and caused the four deaths. Barker stated that if he had even the most remote idea that anything like this would have happened, he would not have done it. He told Judge Davis that he would think about those kids every day of his life. For those in the audience, the confession was way too little and much too late.
In a detailed letter to the court to consider for his sentencing, Barker provided his version of events. Barker stated that after arriving at the offloading location on Hutchinson Island that fateful night, he turned his boat around so the bow faced away from the shoreline after touching bottom. The first two aliens overboard reportedly held the stern of the boat in chest-high water to prevent the boat from entering the surf. Barker stayed at the console to control the boat. Barker stated that pandemonium ensued when the aliens started jumping off the boat. He observed them wading and swimming to the beach and did not observe any of them in distress.
Barker stated that when all of the aliens had departed his boat, he required assistance from two aliens in freeing his two embedded outboard engines from the ocean sand. Barker wrote that he still did not know what happened to the four aliens that perished that night. Everything had seemed normal to him. He alluded to previous alien smuggling ventures that did not end so tragically. Barker tried to sell that his smuggling operation was no high-dollar, big-profit organization. It was simply people helping people according to his letter – a real humanitarian.
AUSA Blair stated to the court that it only takes seeing the faces of these two children to understand the true outcome of Barker’s actions. Richard Barker was sentenced to 46 months in federal prison for the smuggling of Haitian aliens and the death of the two adults and two children. Thanks to the great efforts of the extremely diligent AUSA Blair, this sentence was an upward departure from the federal sentencing guidelines of 30 to 37 months of incarceration. He also received a $400 fine and three years of supervised release.
During the sentencing, Judge Davis stated:
Even though the children were vulnerable victims, I am making only a two level upward adjustment in the sentence because I think that is what I am limited to by the Sentencing Guidelines. That increases the applicable sentencing range from 30 to 37 months to 37 to 46 months.
I still find this to be an inadequate penalty when an action which I find to be reckless causes four deaths. But this is what Congress and the Sentencing Commission have determined to be the limit of my ability to sentence and to punish for that conduct.
You are hereby committed to the custody of the Bureau of Prisons for a term of 46 months.
His defense attorney promised to appeal the sentence.
In the next chapter, read about the reactions after federal sentencing and Richard Barker’s later release from prison to re-enter the smuggling world.