COVINGTON - A Newton County grand jury decided Friday not to indict two victims of convicted murderer Lanny Perry Barnes who protested outside his funeral and allegedly placed signs on his gravesite.
According to a press release issued by District Attorney Ken Wynne, the grand jury considered charges of disruptive conduct at a funeral service, criminal trespass and unlawful placement of signs against sisters Anita King and Stephanie Casola.
In May 2006, Barnes ran down King and Casola and their children in the parking lot of the Covington McDonald's, killing King's 2-year-old daughter.
Barnes was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after his arrest and a plea agreement was reached prior to trial, with Barnes pleading guilty to charges of murder and aggravated battery. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Barnes died in late June of this year.
During Barnes' funeral on July 2 at Grace United Methodist Church, King and Casola and their supporters stood across the street holding signs that read "Today the world is a better place" and "Child Murderer."
Barnes' sister, Manetta Clemons, alleged that protesters also shouted and chanted at family members attending the service, followed the family to the gravesite and later placed signs similar to those used in the protest on his grave.
Clemons said protesters were in violation of a state law that prohibits displaying visual images that convey fighting words; uttering loud, threatening or abusive language; singing, chanting, whistling or yelling; or conducting a public assembly or demonstration within 500 feet of a site being used for a funeral or memorial service. The law applies during the service and one hour prior to and after the service.
Wynne said Clemons and other witnesses addressed the grand jury and, "after considering all of the facts and circumstances surrounding the events ... as well as the applicable law, the grand jury decided not to return any indictments in the case."
Wynne said that the protesters were less than 500 feet from the funeral site, but that there was not sufficient evidence to prove they intended to disrupt the service.
"There's no evidence they were jeering or shouting obscenities or making any verbal statements or any gestures showing evidence of disrupting a funeral service ... It was a peaceful protest," Wynne said.
Also, the constitutionality of statutes prohibiting such demonstrations has been questioned, Wynne said. In 2008, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said members of a Topeka, Kan., church had the right to picket military funerals. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which Wynne said "gives some indication of the constitutionality of the statutes."
Wynne said King and Casola have been told by Covington police not to place signs or other items on Barnes' gravesite.
"Were they to do so, they would be charged and prosecuted ... if it can be proven," he said.
Wynne previously told the Citizen that it is a crime to deface a marker or monument or disturb the contents of the grave, which was not done in this case. The alleged trespassing took place before the posting of "No Trespassing" signs and does not constitute criminal trespassing, he said. The grand jury also considered charges of placing signs on private property.
The Barnes family had previously asked the city of Covington to investigate whether city ordinances were violated, but "I would think if the grand jury would not indict for charges of placing signs on the private property of another, that would sort of indicate to the solicitor of the city of Covington that there isn't strong enough evidence to bring charges there either."
Clemons and Casola could not be reached for comment Friday.
"As far as the state of Georgia is concerned, this brings this matter to a close," Wynne said. "I hope that all of the families involved, as well as the entire community, will be able to move forward and not be bound by events of the past."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.