CARROLLTON – A Winona man entered a guilty plea on Monday in the murders of three people and the attempted murder of another at a birthday celebration in Carroll County last March.
Michael Martin Barnhill, 31, will serve three consecutive life sentences plus 20 years in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections for the shooting deaths of Marlee Jones Barnhill, 26, Jim Harrell, 44, and Brooks Harrell, 38, and for shooting at Amber Garrard, who escaped unharmed.
Barnhill, who was represented by Grenada attorney Neal Marlow, came before Judge Joseph Loper, Jr., in Carroll County Circuit Court Monday where he changed his plea from not guilty to guilty as part of a plea agreement with the district attorney’s office.
“As part of the plea agreement, the state will dismiss the capital murder charge so you will not be facing the death penalty,” Loper told Barnhill.
Barnhill was originally indicted for capital murder, which could incur a death sentence. According to Mississippi Law 92-3-19, the murder of three or more people in a single incident is considered capital murder.
Assistant district attorney Brandon Langford, presented a summation of the state’s case to the court, including a list of witnesses who would testify if the case went to trial.
According to Langford, on the evening of March 1, Michael Barnhill and his wife, Marlee Jones Barnhill, were at the home of Jim and Brooks Harrell, located on County Road 135 in Carroll County, to celebrate Marlee’s birthday. During the evening, Barnhill grabbed a cigarette out of Marlee’s mouth, then pulled out a gun and fired one shot into the air before shooting his wife.
“Jim and Brooks Harrell were on the scene and tried to render aid, and that is when [Barnhill] shot Jim Harrell,” Langford said.
Barnhill then shot Brooks Harrell.
Amber Garrard, who was also a guest at the party, ran “to avoid getting shot herself,” Langford said. Another guest, Mauri Suggs, heard the gunshots and “ran upstairs in the house to safety.”
Langford said he would call Dr. David Arboe, II, deputy chief medical examiner from the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s office, who would testify on the cause of death, as well as Carroll County Sheriff Clint Walker, who would testify on about the criminal investigation.
Shortly after the murders, Walker stated in a press release that Barnhill was “drunk and belligerent” the night of the shootings, and that his wife was trying to prevent him from driving drunk, which angered Barnhill. Barnhill shot Marlee and then the Harrells, who were trying to render aid to Marlee. He said Suggs and Garrard ran into the house and upstairs to protect the Harrell’s 10-year-old son who was asleep in his room. The women locked and barricaded themselves and the boy in a closet until deputies found them later.
After deputies arrived, Barnhill returned to the scene, “acting as though he did not know what had happened,” Walker stated. However, the witnesses alerted deputies that Barnhill was the shooter.
Walker stated, “Each victim of this crime acted out of care and concern for the welfare of others. Marlee tried to keep Michael Barnhill and those he might come into contact with safe by preventing him driving drunk. Jim Harrell acted in defense of Marlee. Brooks Harrell tried to render aid to her husband. Mauri Suggs and Amber Garrard acted to protect a defenseless child, and to warn the deputies of the danger they were facing. During the hardest moments of their lives, they all thought of other people before themselves.”
Family and friends packed the courtroom of the Carrollton Courthouse Tuesday in support of Marlee, Jim, and Brooks.
Marlee worked as a nurse at Tyler Holmes Memorial Hospital.
Jim Harrell was a land surveyor and co-owned Harrell Surveying with his brother, Trent Harrell. Brooks Hooker Harrell was a registered nurse at Greenwood Leflore Hospital and Greenwood Orthopedic Clinic.
They are survived by their two sons.
Members from both the Jones and Harrell families were allowed to make a statement at Monday’s hearing.
Allen Harrell, the 15-year-old son of Jim and Brooks, addressed the court.
“On March 1, [Barnhill] changed mine and my brother’s lives,” he said. “He also took two of the best people who ever lived.”
Loper expressed his admiration for the young man speaking on behalf of his parents.
“You’ve shown so much courage to be here today,” he said.
Ashley White, sister of Marlee, remembered her sister.
“That crooked smile, that silly giggle, a kind heart, and the sweetest piece of our family,” White said through tears. “The things you have taken from us are innumerable. A daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a niece, a cousin, a friend, a fur-mom, and from your own children…a stepmom and companion.”
White said her family weren’t the only ones empty from the loss of Marlee.
“When you took Marlee from this community, that nurtured even you, you robbed us of a nurse that not only healed the body but comforted the soul with her warmth and ever-present smile,” White said.