23 January 2023
BURLINGTON, N.C. (WGHP) – An Alamance County man who was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring with three others to rob a man and then beating him to death is about to be released from prison.
Keith Barts was convicted of first-degree murder in Alamance Superior Court in 1984 in a notorious baseball-bat bludgeoning and robbery of a farmer in which Barts’ cousin originally had received the death penalty.
Keith Barts, 72, was serving 70 concurrent years for two other convictions, and although sometimes newly paroled inmates must wait for months or even a year or more to see their cell doors finally opened, he will be released on Feb. 6, the last of the four convicted in this crime to be granted parole.
The North Carolina Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission, charged with considering the release of persons sentenced for crimes committed before Oct. 1, 1994, granted Barts’ request under its Mutual Agreement Parole Program, which is a scholastic and vocational process that is completed and reviewed in a three-way agreement among the commission, the Division of Prisons and the offender.
North Carolina abolished parole in cases involving murder and rape as of Oct. 1, 1994, and the commission considers the release of offenders who were sentenced under guidelines before that date. The commission sometimes seeks public comment on whether that parole should be granted.
A 4-man plan
Barts, his cousin Earl Jackson Barts and two other men were convicted for their roles in planning and executing a robbery that resulted in the beating death of Richard Braxton, 74, of Snow Camp on Nov. 19, 1983. Braxton came home and encountered the Bartses inside a shed on his property, and they struck him in the head at least seven times with a baseball bat and a rubber hammer, court records show.
Earl Barts, now 81, had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death before the North Carolina Supreme Court in December 1987 ordered his resentencing (which became life). Keith Barts had avoided the death penalty in his trial, but in June 1986 the Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
Earl Barts, who had been interviewed in the case by now Alamance Sheriff Terry Johnson, tried to recant his plea and point his finger at Keith Barts as the person who had struck the fatal blow. Court records indicate that Johnson discounted that theory based on blood-spatter evidence.
But those records also indicate Keith Barts was at the heart of the crime, which was conceived as an attempt to rob Braxton, who was rumored to have large amounts of cash stashed on his farm.
Earl Barts argued that he had been drinking when Keith Barts and a defendant named John David “Fireball” Holmes recruited him under a plan conceived by Charlie Mann, who was not at the scene the night of the crime.
‘Don’t kill the man’
The Barts, records show, were armed with a crowbar and rubber hammer and masked when they approached Braxton’s house and found no one at home. They broke into the house and found a gun and a “sling blade” that they confiscated, but no money. They then went into a shed behind the house, where they picked up the baseball bat and discarded the blade.
Court records say they found no money and went back to the house, but Braxton surprised them by driving up. He apparently went to the shed to investigate an open door, and there he was attacked with the bat by Earl Barts.
Braxton picked up the sling blade and fought back, and Earl Barts dropped the bat. Keith Barts then picked up the bat and, according to court records, beat Braxton in the head.
The Alamance News reported that Earl Barts testified that he told his cousin, “Don’t hit him no more. Don’t kill the man.”
With Braxton down and still, they went through his pockets and took $3,200 in cash, and then Keith Barts hit Braxton one more time with the bat before they drove Braxton’s pickup truck to a rendezvous with Holmes.
Keith Barts was sentenced to 40 concurrent years for robbery with a dangerous weapon and 30 consecutive years for burglary in the second degree. He also has a 3-year consecutive sentence for felony breaking and entering and larceny of more than $200.
In 1995 he received a 4-month concurrent sentence for aiding and abetting the escape of a prisoner.
His only prior prison time on the state database was from 1982, when he served less than 4 months of a 6-month sentence for non-support and 30 days concurrently for being drunk and disorderly.
Earl Barts spent an undetermined period of time on death row but was paroled in May 2021 from his life sentence. He also received the same sentences for robbery with a dangerous weapon, burglary and larceny as Keith Barts had. But his life sentence technically didn’t start until 2016. “When his death sentence was overturned to Life in prison, it was ordered that the life sentence [would] begin at the expiration of his other sentences,” Leigh Kent, lead parole case analyst for the commission, said in response to a question from WGHP. “The other sentences were completed on 4-23-16, so this is when his life sentence for 1st Degree Murder began.”
Holmes, 71, who waited in the getaway vehicle, served less than 10 years of a 28-year sentence for second-degree murder and was given credit for 38 concurrent years for two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon. He was paroled in March of 1995.
Mann, now 100, was convicted in the same trial as Keith Barts and served about 19 months of a 7-year sentence for solicitation to commit robbery and then about 14 months of a 7-year consecutive sentence for common law robbery. He was released in December 1987.
The MAPP program
To be part of the MAPP program, an inmate must show a desire to improve educational and training programs and a self-improvement process. There is a 3-year walk-up to release that, the MAPP website states, requires the inmate:
To be in medium or minimum custody.
Not to be subject to a detainer or pending court action that could result in further confinement.
To be infraction-free for a period of 90 days before being recommended.
If sentenced under the Fair Sentencing Act, to be eligible for 270-day parole or community-service parole.
Barts, most recently held at the Randolph Correctional Center in Asheboro, has had 12 infractions that ran the gamut of seriousness. His most recent was in April of last year, when he was cited for “profane language,” but before that he last was cited in 2006 for a fight with a weapon and other circumstances.