HANNAH NICOLE BARKER
Hannah Barker, 26, will spend 30 years in prison for her part in the death of her 6-month-old son, Levi Cole Ellerbe.
Her girlfriend, Felicia Marie-Nicole Smith, 29, will spend a total of 80 years in prison. Both were sentenced May 4 by 10th Judicial District Judge Desiree Dyess.
Levi was brutally murdered by Smith July 17, 2018. Smith took the infant to a ditch in Breda Town beside the railroad tracks, doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. He died the following day in a Shreveport hospital. Smith previously pleaded guilty to charges of manslaughter, criminal conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and cruelty to a juvenile. Her plea was contingent upon her testifying against Barker.
Barker and her attorney, Dhu Thompson, entered an Alford guilty plea. The Alford plea is used if they want to avoid a possible worse sentence were they to lose the case against them at trial. It affords defendants the ability to accept a plea bargain, while maintaining innocence.
Counsel hashed out the terms of the plea in chambers for approximately three hours prior to entering the Natchitoches courtroom.
District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington and Special Prosecutor Cliff Strider stated that after extensive and multiple meetings, and meetings with the family, all agreed on the plea deal.
Barker, wearing dark slacks, a floral print blouse and facemask, which was soon removed, answered positively to questions about the plea being entered of her own free will, understanding she was giving up her rights to a trial and negatively to having had or having been treated for mental illness.
Strider recapped the events that led to Barker being charged with one count of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
He said the conspiracy charge stemmed from a “significant misdirection of an act of violence. She said repeatedly she was sprayed by mace.” Strider said responding officers observed Barker showed no signs of physical reaction, such as watering eyes, and no mace odor was detected. The shirt Barker wore was sent to a crime lab in Washington, D.C. No mace was detected on the clothing. Barker originally told police she escaped from the men who sprayed her by running to another trailer in the Mayberry Trailer Park, and when she got back, Levi was missing.
The discrepancies in her statements constituted “an attempt to misdirect” according to Strider.
Strider also stated the original plot had Smith shooting Levi then burning his body.
Barker received 10 years for manslaughter with no opportunity for probation, parole or suspension of sentence and received credit for time served since her arrest July 24, 2018. She was sentenced to 30 years at hard labor for conspiracy to commit murder. The two sentences are to run concurrent, or at the same time.
Both were the maximum sentences under La. Statute.
Those in the courtroom heard impact statements from members of the Ellerbe family, including Levi’s father, Billy, whom sat with his head down and hands clasped, visibly distraught, during the sentencing.
Harrington read Ellerbe’s statement, stating he had three daughters, then a son, Levi, born Dec. 20, 2017. “As an only son, I am used to being surrounded by girls,” Harrington read. “I have a son to carry the Ellerbe name… give it a fresh start. My dad was my best friend and I looked to share some of the same times with my son… My son was taken from me. Then 17 days later my father died. I endured seeing my son barely alive, covered in bandages. I had to plan a funeral, choose a casket and try to explain evil to my daughters. The hardest part is I’m alive and my son is not.”
Kathy Ellerbe, Billy’s mother, read her victim impact statement saying “My Chunky Monkey…had started army crawling and his first word was ‘Daddy’.” She said before her husband died, he asked her to find justice for Levi.
Billy’s sister, Brittany Whittington, gave an emotion-riddled speech depicting her life after Levi, and the social, emotional and physical changes to her life and that of her family.
She looked at Barker from the witness stand and said, “It is painful and humiliating and has affected my day-to-day life. When going to my parent’s, my kids would say ‘Hannah’s here’ while smiling. My kids adored you. Now I have to explain why, when I don’t know why.”
She continued, “On July 17 I rushed to you to provide comfort. Then the day we left the hospital, there was so much hurt. To see my dad cry was an unbearable sight I wish I could unsee. We were heartbroken and betrayed.”
She said her father collapsed from a seizure then later passed away Aug. 3. “It was another nightmare. My father loved Levi, but also loved you as his own child.”
She said the nightmares didn’t go away. “Levi must have been crying for you. Crying for help, but nobody came…I pray you always remember Levi, remember his love for you. He was so loved by my family as well as your family.”
Barker is eligible to participate in enrichment programs while in prison.
She was cuffed and led from the courtroom at 1:34 p.m. to begin her sentence.
FELICIA MARIE-NICOLE SMITH
Felicia Smith was sentenced to 80 years in prison Wednesday, May 4, by Judge Desiree Dyess for killing six-month-old Levi Cole Ellerbe July 17, 2018. Smith’s sentencing followed that of Levi’s mother, Hannah Barker, earlier in the day. Barker received a sentence of 30 years for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and 10 years for manslaughter, to run concurrent, or at the same time.
Smith pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter with a sentence of 40 years, one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder with a sentence of 30 years and one count of cruelty to a juvenile under the age of 8 with a sentence of 10 years, all to run consecutive.
Smith’s sentencing date was scheduled for May 31, but in deference to the families, was moved to Wednesday. Representatives of both families were in the courtroom, all visibly emotional as the two cases evolved.
Family members chose the sentencing to deliver their victim impact statements. “Felicia, I want to say how much I hate you,” said Levi’s grandmother Kathy Ellerbe. “But I can’t. You won’t ever have the chance to love a child. I choose pity. You’ll only know the horror of striking that match and setting him on fire.”
Levi’s aunt, Brittany Whittington said, “I wake up from nightmares of how he died. When I see a bonfire, I think of Levi. I have panic and fear when I can’t reach my children. I don’t think they’re safe unless they’re with me.” She said her life and the lives of both families were changed drastically and forever. “People are asking why and I have no answers.”
Answers were still not forthcoming during the cases Wednesday.
Tammy Haggan, a member of the Ellerbe family, said, “A single action…you chose the most horrible, evil action.” She said going to a grave to celebrate a first birthday was something no one should have to endure. “You took his life. You murdered Levi Cole Ellerbe and destroyed the lives of so many others,” she told Smith.
Karyn Hale represented the Barker and Roberts families. “Was this plea agreement justice? …No. Is it what she deserves? ….No,” she said to Smith. “In one of your ever-changing states, you placed him on the ground by the tracks and was going to leave him there, but he cried and you were inconvenienced. You wanted to get to work. There was absolutely nothing to justify pouring gasoline down his throat and setting him on fire.”
She emphatically stated Levi was not an inconvenience, burden or mistake. “No living thing should have to endure such a heinous act. He wasn’t even old enough to have a bad thought. He had no say.”
District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington and Special Prosecutor Cli?ord R. Strider III prosecuted the case.
In a press release from Harrington’s office, he stated, “We were able to secure convictions on both defendants, despite the lack of physical evidence on Barker, who enlisted Smith to carry out the crime. We could not allow the mother, who planned to have her baby killed, to not be held responsible for her actions,” said Harrington.
“Both defendants are culpable in this horrible crime and today Hanna Barker admitted as such when she pleaded guilty to avoid putting her fate in the hands of a jury,” said Strider.
“In my experience prosecuting cases throughout Louisiana, this case ranks as one of the most heinous and callous acts of cruelty I have ever seen,” said Strider, who has over 40 years experience in prosecuting capital cases and violent crimes. “After numerous meetings and extensive input from the family of the victim, we agree that today’s guilty plea and prison sentences at hard labor for both defendants will begin to bring some sense of closure to the family.”
Harrington commended the dedicated work of the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s O?ce, the Natchitoches Police Department and the Natchitoches Fire Department. “Their commitment to justice was indispensable in obtaining these convictions,” he said. Harrington specifically noted the tireless and professional assistance rendered by Lt. Je? Townson of the Natchitoches Police Department.
“Our prosecution team spent thousands of hours in developing this case. Every minute was worth it to secure guilty pleas from the mother who devised an evil plan to have her son killed and from Barker’s girlfriend who carried out Barker’s plan. In Barker’s case, there was little physical evidence to implicate her in the murder of Levi, but substantial circumstantial evidence was developed by law enforcement. Apparently, the threat of testimony by Smith, coupled with the circumstantial evidence, motivated Barker to accept responsibility for her actions,” said Harrington. “We were fortunate to obtain Barker’s guilty plea considering the nature of this crime and lack of physical evidence.”
Judge Dyess rendered the sentence to Smith, who was clad in dark pants and a button down plaid long sleeved shirt and wearing leg chains and handcuffs, saying, “The Court finds you guilty on all counts.”
Hale told Smith to think about what brought her to the point of killing the baby. “There are no winners here today. Our hope is all sides will heal enough to find peace and purpose.”
Barker’s attorney, Dhu Thompson, also released a statement, saying, “This case is an absolute tragedy on so many levels. One is the horrific manner in which baby Levi was killed by Felicia Smith. Second is what my client has also had to endure throughout this process. She’s lost her only child to the horrible and unimaginable actions of Felicia Smith, and while having to grieve and mourn her baby boy, she’s had to do so while losing years of her life and her freedom in the process. Faced with the resources of the state against her, the emotions of the case in front of the jury and the risk of a sentence that would incarcerate her for the rest of her life, my client had to make the decision to choose what was in her best interest and accept a plea that will allow her to get out of jail in a few years while also maintaining her innocence. This was the basis of the Alford plea done today, which as the case law provides, allows a person to accept a best interest plea under protestation of innocence.”