LITTLE ROCK — An Evening Shade man who once proudly called himself a “devout racist” and scoffed at his history of violent crimes stood apologetically before a federal judge Friday, saying being jailed for a Hardy firebombing “was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Jason Walter Barnwell’s humble demeanor was in stark contrast to the cocky attitude he displayed last spring when he was first taken into a Little Rock federal courtroom in shackles, racially charged tattoos covering his head and arms.
“I’m not going to try to minimize any of the things I’ve done,” the 37-year-old former leader of a skinhead group told U.S. District Judge Bill Wilson, who was about to sentence him on civil-rights charges for throwing Molotov cocktails at the mobile home of a multiracial couple in January 2011. Wilson sentenced Barnwell to 20 years in prison on the civil-rights charges and added a concurrent 15-year sentence for a weapons charge.
One of three flaming bottles thrown late that night by Barnwell and others shattered the home’s living room window and set the curtains on fire. But the couple, awakened by the noise and flames, quickly doused the flames andescaped injury.
Barnwell pleaded guilty Aug. 26 to two civil-rights charges and a third charge of being a felon in possession of an unregistered weapon, admitting that the firebombing was motivated by racism and by anger - the latter because he believed the man had insulted his girlfriend.
With Barnwell’s history of violence and his status as an organizer of the attack, he faced a minimum of 20 years in prison, which Wilson imposed with the agreement of Assistant U.S. Attorney Cindy Chung of Washington, D.C., and defense attorney Misty Borkowski of Little Rock.
Federal sentencing guidelines recommended 14 to 171 /2 years for each of Barnwell’s first two charges, conspiring to violate civil rights and using fire in the commission of a felony. Under the law, the latter charge has to be served consecutively to the first. But each charge carried statutory maximums of 10 years.
Barnwell’s third charge, for possessing the incendiary device, was punishable by 15 years to life under federal statutes, while the guidelines recommended 15 years to 17 1/2 years.
Wilson imposed a 15-year concurrent sentence on that charge after listening to Barnwell and a jail chaplain describe a transformation they say he has undergone in thepast several months while being held in federal custody at the Van Buren County jail in Clinton.
As Barnwell began speaking to the judge, he paused to choke back tears, then began again after the judge told him to take his time.
Barnwell said he grew up being bullied, and always hated bullies, but, “At some point, in trying to defend myself, I ended up becoming the very person I grew up hating.”
He said that while “I’ve never been one to claim jailhouse faith,” his time at the Clinton jail has been so helpful that if he had experienced it years earlier, “I wouldn’t have been running around the last 20 years as a devout racist.”
Charles Gregory of Morrilton, one of the chaplains who visits the jail every Wednesday to minister to inmates, testified that he has known Barnwell since he wasincarcerated in April, and, “I was there when he accepted Christ.” He said Barnwell has since led other inmates toward religion and that he has seen Barnwell hugging multiracial people.
“You probably think I’m just blowing smoke,” Barnwell told the judge as he searched for the right words.
Wilson replied, “I don’t believe you are.”
“If I could do anything to make it right with thesepeople, I would,” Barnwell said. “If I could take it back, I would. ... I’m a better man than I was.”
He told the judge that he was impressed by the way federal agents and marshals have treated him civilly throughout his ordeal, and said he hopes that “if I ever do get out” of prison, he might be able to “rectify some 25-odd years of wrongness.”
After the hearing, FBI Agent Steve Burrows, the lead investigator in the case, walked up and shook Barnwell’s hand.
The other man who is considered a leader in the firebombing, 32-year-old Gary Don “Bumper” Dodson of Waldron, pleaded guilty in December, just as his trial was about to begin, to three charges as well, and is to be sentenced in June.
Meanwhile, two younger men whom Barnwell and Dodson have admitted they were trying to recruit as “skinheads” are each serving 54-month sentences. They are Dustin Hammond, 20, of Evening Shade and Jake Murphy, 19, of Waldron.
Last month, Wilson sentenced Wendy Treybig, 31, who at the time was Barnwell’s girlfriend and now is his wife, to 21 months in prison for trying to talk an acquaintance into providing a false alibi that would clear Barnwell.