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Mar 1 2009

Dart Award Honorable Mention

Latisha's Children

Bearing Witness

Joy Perez sat in the witness stand wearing Latisha's black pumps for courage and a white blouse bought that morning off the sale rack at J.C. Penney. Her face was red from crying. Ramsey County prosecutor Rosita Serrano handed her a glossy 4-by-6.

Joy Perez sat in the witness stand wearing Latisha's black pumps for courage and a white blouse bought that morning off the sale rack at J.C. Penney. Her face was red from crying. Ramsey County prosecutor Rosita Serrano handed her a glossy 4-by-6.

"Do you recognize this photograph?" Serrano asked.

"I took that picture," Joy said.

The photograph showed her daughter Latisha Barnes a few weeks before her death, with a black eye and haggard face. The winsome smile was gone.

"Why did you take that picture?"

Joy struggled to maintain composure. Her daughter had come to Joy's trailer that day with bruises and a ring of hickeys around her neck like an owner's brand, she explained. Joy sat Latisha down in the bathroom and snapped a picture she thought might prove abuse. She never thought it would be an exhibit in a murder trial.

As the jurors passed the photo among themselves, the only sound was Joy's jagged breath amplified by the microphone as she fought off tears. It was July 5, eight months to the day since Latisha had been killed. The murder trial was under way at last.

Seated at the defendant's table in front of Joy was the man accused of her daughter's murder, Areece Devon Manley. He was neatly dressed: pressed shirt, dark suit, hair shaved short, a shadow of goatee along his jaw line. Manley was a plump, sad-looking man of 29 with small features and sloping shoulders. Joy avoided looking anywhere near him.

Beyond a hip-high brass gate, the public benches were nearly full with Latisha's relatives and friends. Manuel sat near the front, his forehead pressed into his hands. Latisha's father was there. So were Joy's former foster mother and Joy's 18-year-old son. As a witness, Joy would be allowed in the courtroom only to testify and hear final arguments.

A guilty verdict was far from certain. There was no weapon, and there were no eyewitnesses except Latisha's two older boys. By the time Manley turned himself in two weeks after the murder, there were no incriminating bloodstains on his clothes or scratches on his face. There were only traces of his DNA from beneath Latisha's fingernail.

And there was no confession. Manley declared he was innocent and offered another story. He said Latisha had been killed by drug dealers to stop her from snitching on their operation. On the night she was killed, he'd returned to Latisha's duplex after buying cigarettes to find dealers harassing her, he had told relatives. He fled to Kansas City, and said he didn't learn of her death until he phoned home a day and a half later.

To prove their charge of first-degree murder, prosecutors would put Latisha's and Manley's entire relationship before the jury. They would show a crescendo of abuse that began with controlling what she wore and who she saw, and escalated to brutal beatings and threats when she tried to leave. Then when Manley could no longer have Latisha, he killed her, they claimed.

A MENACING TURN

The relationship began sweetly, though, in the summer of 1999, when Manley met Latisha outside her St. Paul apartment while her husband was in prison. She hadn't really dated since high school and was flattered by his affection, the jewelry and hotel parties, and the attention he paid to her children. Manley was a ninth-grade dropout with a felony drug conviction. But romantic prospects were few for a single woman with four children. Latisha tattooed "Areece" on her ankle and hoped that going to church or getting a job would change her new boyfriend.

Within weeks, his charm yielded to a bitter obsession. Manley, a meticulous man who ironed his T-shirts and bought Latisha outfits to match his own, cut her off from friends and accused her of cheating on him. He would hit her, clutch her neck and shove her up against a wall, Latisha's former roommates told the jury. She would scratch and plead. But he was stronger.

Eighteen-year-old Ella Hunter told jurors she once saw Manley chase Latisha down the stairs brandishing a knife. "Think I won't kill you?" he yelled. Hunter never saw how the fights ended. Following Latisha's instructions, she rushed the four children outside.

"Did you ever call police?" asked Manley's lawyer.

"There was nothing I could do about it," said Hunter.

To make money, Manley sold cocaine and something called "sherm," tobacco cigarettes dipped in embalming fluid and frequently laced with PCP, or phencyclidine, a discontinued veterinary tranquilizer that has volatile effects in humans, including hallucinations. Latisha, who before had drunk only wine coolers, started smoking the cigarettes. Every few months, she and Manley drove to Kansas City and brought back the embalming fluid in vanilla bottles. The drug made her depressed and fueled Manley's paranoia.

Soon, he wanted to know who Latisha was with at all times. He paged her constantly and paged her friends if she didn't answer. He demanded to know who she talked to and checked her caller ID.

Many of Latisha's friends and family knew what was happening but felt there was little they could do or were themselves intimidated by the pudgy drug dealer with the hair-trigger temper. Latisha had called police, but she backed off her accusations when they arrived, terrified of Manley's threats. The calls were logged as unsubstantiated.

Romerro Walker, Latisha's step-uncle, impassively told the jury of watching Manley shove his niece and slap her while seated in a car parked outside Walker's house.

"What did you do?" asked Serrano.

"Nothing," said Walker. "They weren't on my property. All I could do is stay out of it."

Latisha's friend Tammy Vaughn did try. A few years older than Latisha, she was on her porch with her friend when Manley shoved and threatened her. "You call the police on me, bitch, I'll kill you," Vaughn said he told Latisha. When Vaughn told him to take his hands off her friend, he left.

Later, outside the courtroom, Vaughn said she had urged Latisha to kick Manley out and Latisha had said she wanted to, but delayed of fear and a vain hope he would change. Frustrated with her friend's inaction, Vaughn cut her off. "And that really hurts because maybe I could have done something."

Even when Latisha left Manley and moved into a new duplex a month before her death, he didn't stay away. He helped her move, then lurked outside, looking in windows. One night he broke through the back door. 

LATE CRY FOR HELP

Three weeks before she was killed, Latisha was finally terrified enough to speak to the police. She came to her stepfather's house, sobbing, trembling, with a swollen face. He insisted they call 911 and when the police officer arrived, Latisha said she had woken before dawn that morning to find Manley high on something, wrapping her fingers around a knife and insisting that she had just killed someone. To get him to leave, she offered to drive him to his mother's house. In the car, he punched her, drew a gun and forced her into the trunk. As she lay in the darkness, he drove until the car ran out of gas on West Seventh Street. When he let her out, he threatened to kill everyone she loved if she made a scene.

Back at the duplex, he wanted to take Nylah, the toddler, to ensure that Latisha would not call police. She urged him to take Michael and Marcus to school instead. When Manley left, he took the boys, the telephone and the batteries to her cell phone.

The police officer took her statement. The investigation was still under way when Latisha was killed. Although Manley's ex-wife and two girlfriends had filed orders for protection against him after beatings and threats, he had never been convicted of battering a woman. In court, Manley's mother insisted that her son had never done such things.

By the weekend she was killed, Latisha was desperate. On the morning of Saturday, Nov. 4, she made a frantic call to the Rev. Stephen Michaels, her pastor and former brother-in-law. Manley was in her bedroom, accusing her of having another lover, Michaels told the jury. Michaels had wanted to call police, but Latisha begged him not to. ""I'm afraid if you hang up, he'll kill me,'" Michaels said she told him.

She was supposed to meet Michaels later that day but never showed. Instead, she withdrew $650 from an ATM machine, leaving just $20 in her account. Then she asked a cousin to accompany her to the duplex to pick up clothes for the children; she was scared to go alone. She had planned to spend the night at a relative's house in Mankato, Minn., but for some reason returned to the duplex instead.

Meanwhile, Manley was looking for her. At 8:30 p.m., he swung by the home of the children's babysitter. Sometime around midnight that last night, her friend Tammy Vaughn called Latisha for the first time in months and seemed to wake her. Latisha was groggy, and they agreed to talk later. That was the last contact Latisha had with anyone outside her home.

Joy Perez wasn't in the courtroom as jurors heard the details of Latisha's final day. She was back at her house, filling every moment with laundry, gardening, child care, anything to avoid thinking about the trial. She bought a dog for the kids, a little white mutt with tawny spots, named Patches. She vacuumed cobwebs off the ceiling. She chain-smoked, talked incessantly on the phone and snapped at her family. Manuel clipped the boys' hair and gave 4-year-old Donte a mohawk for fun.

"I'm gonna be surprised if my mind doesn't blow," she said. "This is more than a human being can bear."

BEST EVIDENCE

On the morning they testified, Michael and Marcus perched in the window ledge of a conference room down one floor from Judge John Connolly's courtroom, betting which cars would make it first across the Wabasha Street bridge. Tom Ellis, their counselor, gave each a rock to slip into his pocket for encouragement. Then Al Zdrazil, co-counsel for the prosecution, led them upstairs.

The jury watched as Marcus' image was projected onto a screen; the boys' live testimony was delivered via video camera from the judge's chamber, because seeing Manley might traumatize them anew. Their answers during almost 90 minutes of questioning were sometimes confusing, even contradictory. But what jurors heard made a few of them cry.

What was Areece like? Zdrazil asked.

Marcus, no longer the playful traffic spotter, swung his legs and anxiously wrapped his arms around the arms of the chair.

"He didn't like my mom."

Why do you say that?

"I seen him have a gun ... behind his back. ... I was scared. He told us to go into our room and told us to go to sleep. So, I went to sleep, into my room. ... I heard a boom."

What did you do when you heard the boom?

"I ran into my mom's room. ... Mom wasn't moving. ... It was raining out. ... He stole my mom's keys."

At first, Michael seemed more relaxed. But he flinched and went silent when Zdrazil asked him if he knew a man named Areece.

Why aren't you talking? ... Are you scared of anything, Michael? ... How are you feeling right now?

"Sad."

Did you ever see Areece with a gun?

"Behind his back."

Did he shoot the gun?

"Yes."

How do you know he shot the gun?

"I heard the gun. ..."

The trial's third week brought the physical evidence. Latisha was killed by a bullet to the head, explained the assistant medical examiner. But that wasn't all. She also was strangled so violently that a bone in her neck was crushed and her face and neck erupted in pinprick hemorrhages. There were bruises and scrapes on her arms and legs. A high concentration of the drug PCP, known in the '60s as "angel dust," was found in her blood.

But the most important physical evidence was DNA found under a bloody fingernail on Latisha's left hand. The laboratory at the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had never before found such a large amount of someone else's DNA under a victim's fingernail. It matched Manley's genetic profile. The prosecution claimed that Latisha drew his blood when she scratched Manley during a desperate fight for her life. Manley's attorney, Joy Bartscher, suggested the DNA could have gotten there another way -- picking a scab or popping a pimple, for example.

But the prosecution was confident. After the DNA testimony, it rested its case.

JUSTICE

Finally, after 14 days of testimony from more than 40 witnesses, the case went to the jury. Joy expected a guilty verdict within an hour, but the jury deliberated into the evening. She and Manuel ate White Castle hamburgers, watched Jerry Springer and got little sleep as the wait continued.

The phone call came the next morning just after 9 a.m. Joy and Manuel arrived last in the courtroom after dropping the kids off with babysitters. Clutching a framed portrait of Latisha's children, Joy squeezed onto a crowded bench. Manuel rubbed her shoulders.

"Has the jury reached a verdict?" Judge Connolly asked.

The law clerk stepped forward to take several sheets of folded paper from the jury forewoman. After the judge glanced at them, he handed them back to his clerk.

The clerk read: "We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of the charge of murder in the first degree."

There was a collective gasp. Joy doubled over as if she'd been punched. Tears dripped from her face. It was over, finally over. Moments later, she regained a remarkable poise and took the witness stand to speak to the judge before he sentenced Manley. She showed him the family photo and told of the pain caused by her daughter's death.

Manley, impassive through days of testimony, came to life. He leaned back in his chair, bit his lip, rubbed his hand over his head. Then, as Joy described the children missing their mother, an inexplicable smirk crept across his lips.

Connolly sentenced him to life in prison, eligible for parole in 30 years.

When Joy Perez stepped out of the courthouse elevator, she was met by the brilliant lights of a television camera. She stopped to deliver a message to other abuse victims: Seek help. "Women, open your mouths, you can get out of it. You have to."

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