Coroner’s inquest finds Chambers’ death was justifiable homicide
After more than an hour of testimony and about 45 minutes of deliberation last week, an Ozark County coroner’s inquest jury found reasonable cause to believe the Feb. 12 death of 26-year-old Robert Christian Chambers was justifiable homicide.
The inquest was convened at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20, in the Ozark County Courthouse and was presided over by Ozark County Coroner Shane Ledbetter.
The opinion of the coroner’s inquest jury is taken as a consideration by the county prosecuting attorney, but it is not a legally binding verdict. The prosecutor can still file charges if he chooses.
Tuesday, Ozark County Prosecuting Attorney John Garrabrant had not indicated what charges, if any, he planned to file in the case.
Three people testified in front of the six-person jury: Ozark County Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Curtis Dobbs, witness Jacob Cutrell and Travis Barlow, the man accused of stabbing Chambers.
Garrabrant addressed the jury first, presenting the autopsy findings and explaining that Chambers had died from a single stab wound to the center of the chest that pierced his heart.
Dobbs, first to testify
Dobbs was the first to testify. He told the jury he had received a call from an Ozark County Sheriff’s dispatcher at about 4:30 on the morning of Feb. 12, alerting him to a possible stabbing at the home of David McFall on County Road 467, near the Arkansas-Missouri state line.
Dobbs said when he arrived at McFall’s home, Ozark County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Lane and two Baxter County, Arkansas, deputies were at the scene and had detained several people who were present at the home during the incident. Dobbs said the Baxter County officers were also called because the dispatcher was unsure if the home was in Missouri or Arkansas when the stabbing was first reported.
According to Dobbs, four people lived in the house at the time of the incident: McFall, the homeowner; Barlow, the man who reportedly stabbed Chambers; and two other individuals, Richard Bearden and Kim Rowley.
All four residents were detained after the incident.
Officers also detained Cutrell, who also testified at the inquest. Cutrell had come to the McFall house that morning with Chambers and two others, Chad Brandon and Katherine Brotherton, who left the scene before officers arrived.
Dobbs testified that Chambers’ body was found a few feet from the door to the home’s sunroom, which was located in the back of the house and was being used by Barlow as a bedroom.
At that point in the inquest, Garrabrant entered several photos into evidence and presented them to the jury, including photos of Chambers’ body lying outside the home and close-up photos of the stab wound.
Dobbs’ interview with Barlow
Dobbs told the inquest jury he was trained in interviewing, so he was tasked with transporting Barlow and the others present on scene to the Ozark County Sheriff’s Office, where he interviewed them. Dobbs interviewed Barlow first.
“What was his demeanor?” asked Garrabrant.
“He was very shaken up…very emotional,” said Dobbs.
Dobbs said Barlow had several “significant” injuries to his forehead, eye and fingers on his right hand, along with marks on his knees and shins that looked “like a rug burn.”
Dobbs testified that Barlow was cooperative during the investigation, showing no hesitation in his answers.
According to Dobbs’ testimony, Barlow said he was sleeping in the sunroom, which he’d converted to a bedroom, when he was awakened by a tapping on the window. Assuming it was his housemate, Bearden, who had been locked out, Barlow opened the door and was attacked, pushed to the ground, thrown into an end table and thrown from one side of the room to the other, being struck in the back of the head each time contact was made.
Barlow told Dobbs the room was completely dark. So, at the time, he didn’t know who the attacker was. Dobbs said Barlow reported having a “come to light” moment and thought, “I’ve got knives in here. I’ve got to do something.”
Dobbs testified that during the interview Barlow said he was trying to get the attacker off of him, and he reached around and found one of two swords given to him by his brother.
He reportedly told Dobbs he stabbed the sword backward, under his arm. Barlow told the officer things surrounding the incident were “fuzzy,” and he said he either stabbed Chambers or Chambers fell on the sword.
Dobbs said Barlow told him the attacker stood up, and Barlow pushed him toward the door and out of the room. Barlow said he heard Cutrell yelling something. He immediately called 911 and reported that he’d been attacked.
Dobbs’ interview with Cutrell
Dobbs said he then interviewed Cutrell, who told the officer that he, Chambers, Brotherton and Brandon met up in Gainesville and decided to go to McFall’s house to retrieve some of Brotherton’s belongings.
Dobbs said Cuttrell told him Chambers drove and parked the vehicle on the county road at the state line, some distance from the McFall property. Cutrell said the four then traveled on foot to McFall’s residence.
Cuttrell reportedly told Dobbs that Bearden met them at the front door, but there was no argument.
According to Dobbs, Cutrell said McFall would not let the four individuals in to retrieve the belongings “until they paid him the money he said they owed him.”
Cutrell told Dobbs that he and Chambers then went to the back door.
Cutrell reportedly said it was Chambers’ idea to go to the back door, and Chambers didn’t tell Cutrell why he wanted to go back there. During the interview, Cuttrell said Chambers knocked on the door and somebody looked out and opened the door, and Chambers walked inside.
Cutrell also told Dobbs there was some sort of conversation between Chambers and the other person, and then a fight ensued.
“He described [the fight] a lot like Barlow,” Dobbs testified.
Cutrell told Dobbs that, after some time, he heard Chambers get up and come to the door. He told the deputy that Chambers made a pained sound as he walked down the steps to the carport and collapsed a few feet away.
Witness testimony on stand
Cutrell, the next person to testify, told the jury that he, Chambers, Brotherton and Brandon all had belongings at McFall’s house that they had wanted to retrieve. Cutrell said he had also lived at the McFall house for a short time in the past.
“Why did you go at 3 a.m.?” asked Garrabrant.
“It was just an idea to get our stuff,” said Cutrell.
He then told the jury that Chambers drove to the “turn-around spot” on the county road near the state line and parked.
“Why didn’t you pull up to the house?” Garrabrant asked.
“I don’t know,” Cutrell answered.
Cutrell testified that the group of four walked to the McFall home, and one of the men who lived at the house, Bearden, answered the door.
“We came in, and Robert [Chambers] talked to McFall about our stuff,” said Cutrell. “He said he wasn’t giving our stuff back till we paid him what we owed him.”
Cutrell told the jury that after that discussion, he, Chambers and Brandon walked around to the back of the house, where the sunroom/bedroom was located. He said Brandon stopped halfway around and turned back; Cutrell was unsure why. But he said he and Chambers continued to the back of the house.
“I thought it was still Robert’s room,” said Cutrell.
He said Chambers knocked on the back door, and someone opened it.
“They said something to each other, and Chambers went into the room,” said Cutrell. “I didn’t even have the door shut when I noticed they were fighting.”
Cutrell said it was dark inside the room, and he couldn’t see exactly what was happening. He said he could only hear sounds of fighting. “They went back and forth across the room a few times” before the fighting stopped, he said.
Cutrell testified that Chambers walked out of the room. At the time, Cutrell didn’t know anything was wrong with Chambers, and he followed his friend.
The pair walked down four steps from the sunroom and had continued about 20 feet when Chambers fell to the ground.
“I was talking to him, and he wasn’t answering,” said Cutrell. “He was gasping.”
Cutrell told the jury he didn’t know what to do.
“Chad [Brandon] left…left me there,” said Cutrell. “I waited, and they [the people in the house] locked the door. I kept yelling at them to call an ambulance.”
Cutrell said he walked away from the house, taking a shovel with him “to protect myself,” he testified. “My friend had just been stabbed.”
“So you were afraid?” Garrabrant asked.
“When you all went out there, how determined were you to get the stuff back?” asked Garrabrant.
“Not very,” said Cutrell. “I don’t know why Robert went to the back of the house.”
“Did Robert seem angry?” asked Garrabrant.
“No,” said Cutrell.
“Is it reasonable to say Robert was a scrapper, he never backed down from a fight?” Garrabrant asked.
“I guess,” Cuttrell testified.
The accused testifies
Barlow was the final person to testify before the jury.
He testified that he had been living at McFall’s home for three weeks, serving as McFall’s caretaker.
He said he had met Chambers a couple times at the residence.
Barlow said he stayed in the back room. “It was a sunroom I was turning into a bedroom,” said Barlow.
In later testimony, he said other people’s belongings were also in the room, including items belonging to Brotherton.
Barlow told the jury that he went to bed around 10:30 or 11 p.m., and he woke up to someone pecking at his door.
“I figured it was Richard [Bearden] needing a hand with the [fire]wood,” he said. “I answer the door, look up, and I got blindsided. I got punched in the face.”
He said he saw three people outside as he opened the door, and he didn’t recognize the person who hit him.
“I fell over. He jumped on me, and he was…constantly, blow after blow, hitting me in the head,” Barlow testified. “I was trying to get my footing, trying to get back up, but he kept on hitting me.”
Barlow said he was eventually bent over a chair, and his attacker was behind him, holding him down and hitting him. Barlow said he was trying to get his footing when he remembered the swords were against the wall.
“It was dark, and I couldn’t see anything. I remembered the swords my brother gave me were leaning up against the wall, and I remember reaching for them. I was in survival mode. I don’t know if he fell on it or if I stabbed him.
“At that point I didn’t recognize him or know anyone else was in the room,” said Barlow. “I kept telling him to get out.”
“How many times were you struck?” asked Garrabrant.
“I have no idea,” Barlow answered.
“Was it more than five?”
“Were you in fear for your life?” asked Garrabrant.
“Yes, I was,” said Barlow.
The jury’s opinion
“It’s pretty well established that Mr. Chambers came to his death by Mr. Barlow,” Garrabrant told the jury before sending them to deliberate. “Your duty is to determine whether Chambers’ death was a felony, or if he was killed in self-defense.”
Garrabrant explained the coroner’s inquest jury’s burden of proof was “more likely than not,” a lower level than that in a traditional jury trial, where jurors are asked to decide “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Garrabrant told the jurors that they should consider whether Barlow caused Chambers’ death while acting in lawful self-defense. To make that determination, Garrabrant provided two different self-defense laws in Missouri that could possibly be applied to the stabbing incident.
Jurors were instructed to rule the incident was “justified homicide” if the jury believed it was “more likely than not” that the following conditions were met:
Barlow believed he was in “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury” from the assault by Chambers – and that Barlow believed Chambers intended to commit a forcible felony.
“Was Mr. Barlow [in imminent danger of death or serious injury]?” asked Garrabrant. “Was his belief reasonable when he was attacked?”
Garrabrant explained that a second line of self-defense, the “castle doctrine,” could also cause jurors to render a justifiable homicide verdict if the following conditions were met:
Barlow was occupying the residence and believed Chambers had unlawfully entered it – and that Barlow believed physical force was required to protect himself from the imminent use of physical force against him.”
The jurors were given a verdict sheet and instructed that all six jurors must unanimously agree on the verdict that the stabbing was justifiable homicide, murder or some other type of felony.
The jury deliberated for approximately 45 minutes before returning to their seats. Ledbetter, the coroner, read the verdict aloud. He explained that the unanimous conclusion was that Barlow had committed “justifiable homicide.”