LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s not clear if Betty Carnes was killed by asphyxiation or by the eight blows to her head that Delmar Partin delivered with a metal pipe. The coroner couldn’t tell which killed the mother of three first, but it was very clear that her head was then chopped off and placed on her lap in a 55-gallon barrel that was destined for a toxic waste site.
On Monday, departing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin pardoned and commuted the sentence of Partin, who was convicted of killing her at the factory where they both worked in Barbourville in 1994.
In his order, Bevin said he pardoned Partin because potential DNA evidence had not been tested.
“Given the inability or unwillingness of the state to use existing DNA evidence to either affirm or disprove this conviction, I hearby pardon Mr. Partin for this crime and encourage the state to make every effort to bring final justice to the victim and her family,” Bevin wrote.
The prosecutor on the case, Tom Handy, said he hasn’t been this angry in a long time. He called the governor’s pardon “mystifying.”
“I think its arrogance of one who has a God-like image of himself,” Handy said of Bevin. “And a lack of concern for anybody else.”
The pardon was just one of several controversial pardons and commutations Bevin issued in his final days in office. The list includes several in Handy’s old district, including a teacher, Charles Doug Phelps, who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and tampering with a witness. In his pardon, Bevin called the conviction “long on duration, long on accusation, long on drama and short on evidence.”
The police found photos of minors performing sexual acts on Phelps’ phone.
In the Partin case, Handy painted the picture of a grisly murder, one where no blood was found because Partin used a hook meant for hunting alligators to cut off the blood flow to Carnes’ head.
Partin and Carnes worked together at the Tremco Plant in Barbourville and had been having an affair that she had recently ended.
“He hated her so much and he wanted to punish her with her looking at him before he cut her head off,” Handy said. “The evil is unimaginable.”
Handy said Partin’s defense attorney, Bill Johnson, had never even brought up DNA evidence in his many appeals, which went all the way to the Kentucky Supreme Court.
“I don’t think the governor got the record of a two week trial and read it,” Handy said.
In 2008, Partin asked the Knox County Circuit Court to perform a DNA test on a strand of hair found in Partin’s trash can. His request was denied and that denial was upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
When the Court of Appeals ruled against testing the DNA evidence, Justice Laurence VanMeter acknowledged that “evidence of Partin’s guilt was circumstantial,” but said the “evidence as a whole was sufficient to uphold the jury’s verdict and the trial court’s denial of a directed verdict.”
VanMeter wrote that that Partin wanted the DNA test on hair found in his kitchen trash, but the jury was already aware the hair in the trash may or may not have belonged to the victim.
Johnson said he couldn’t recall exactly what DNA evidence the governor was referring to in the pardon (he learned of the pardon through a Herald-Leader reporter), but said he was pleased Partin was pardoned. Johnson said Partin was a quiet man who was well behaved in prison and adamant that he did not commit the crime.
“I always had serious doubts in my mind that Delmar had killed her,” Johnson said.
For Handy, the news of the pardon was devastating.
“I called the family last night and we all cried together,” he said.
Bevin’s former chief of staff, Blake Brickman, did not respond to a text message asking if either he or Bevin would comment on the hundreds of pardons and commutations Bevin issued in the final days of his administration, which ended Monday night.
Jackie Steele, the current commonwealth’s attorney in Knox and Laurel counties, cited several other pardons in his jurisdiction that made him unhappy.
One of them was Patrick Baker, who was one of three men convicted of a murder in Knox County in 2014. Baker’s sentence was commuted, but the other two men remain in prison. Baker’s brother and sister-in-law held a fundraiser in 2018 for Bevin that raised $21,500, and personally contributed $4,000.
“This is a travesty of our justice system,” Steele said. “When you have law enforcement and prosecutors and families who sludge through this process … . when they do get justice and he turns around and does something like this? It’s a travesty.”
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