Prosecutors have dropped a first-degree murder charge against Eric Barnes, 29, of Dorchester after a young woman named Brianna L. Erickson, a central witness in the case, died in jail. Authorities say the death was a suicide, but a close family friend says Erickson was distressed and feared for her safety.
“The evidence developed thus far by Boston Police homicide detectives and the district attorney’s office is that [Erickson’s death] was a non-homicide,” said Jake M. Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office, adding that his department pays special attention to deaths in custody.
Wark also said he has not obtained any information that Erickson was intimidated in jail.
“Obviously, if there was an allegation for that, we would look into it,” he said.
The testimony of Erickson, 22, who died while in South Bay House of Correction on May 8, 2014, was considered critical for Barnes’ trial to proceed. While the official investigation into her death is ongoing, the district attorney’s office said all evidence points to her taking her own life.
“As a result of this witness’s death, the Commonwealth does not have a good faith basis that it can prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Assistant District Attorney Mark T. Lee wrote in a document filed by the prosecution on Aug. 21, 2014.
Barnes, along with two other men, had been implicated in the fatal shooting of Brousseau Normil, 20, from Cambridge, during an armed robbery in March 2013. Barnes was arraigned in Suffolk Superior Court in April.
Erickson, the chief witness, was charged with armed robbery in connection with Normil’s death. According to her lawyer, she had met with the prosecutor’s office and testified in front of a grand jury as part of a deal to have her sentence reduced.
“She seemed hopeful and her concerns were for her future,” said John C. Hayes, Erickson’s attorney, who last saw his client at her arraignment. “Her suicide was a complete shock and I saw no sign of it.”
Hayes said there was concern Erickson might be contacted or threatened by people close to her co-defendants.
“My understanding is that people saw that she had been arraigned and only charged with robbery,” the attorney said. “Some of the inmates had seen this and said things to her, like, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Hayes said that at this time there is no direct evidence to suggest that Erickson had been intimidated. But a family friend, who asked not to be named out of fear for her own safety, was under the impression that Erickson was afraid for her life.
“I know that a couple [of] times when Brianna had called me, she was saying that she was being threatened and that she asked for a transfer,” the friend said.
During a phone call the day of her death, the friend said that Erickson told her she was scheduled to be transferred to another facility.
“When I asked her questions about what had happened [to cause the transfer], she said, ‘I’ll write it to you in a letter. I’ll write it tonight,’” the friend said. “And I never received anything.”
Hayes confirmed there had been talk of movement to another facility, though he said he had no concrete reason to suspect her death involved foul play.
“It is my belief that the district attorney’s office and police carefully investigated her death,” he said, “and all indications are that it was a suicide.”
Erickson’s death was not the first recorded in South Bay House of Correction this year. Two weeks before she died, The Boston Globe reported that Rohan Blackwood, 28, of Boston was found unresponsive by a corrections officer conducting rounds.
Blackwood, who was being held on a conviction of assault with a deadly weapon, was pronounced dead at the scene.
In 2013, another inmate was indicted for murder after beating his cellmate to death.
As for Barnes’ release, Wark, the DA’s spokesman, said his office has an ethical obligation not to pursue a case they cannot prove.
“Given the state of the evidence today, we’re in a position where we know we can’t prevail at trial,” he said.
Wark said prosecutors still plan to pursue cases against Kenneth Sales, 24, and Tyronne Seams, 27, who were also implicated in Normil’s death. Both men were indicted on charges of first-degree murder while in jail for unrelated offenses.
Sales is being held at the Nashua Street Jail in Boston following an Aug. 21 arraignment, while Seams is being held out of state.
Peter Van Delft, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, said Erickson’s death was a suicide, but declined to give more information at this time.
A copy of the nolle prosequi calling for Barnes’ release is below.