Sarah Wisnosky Death – Your Worst Nightmare Secret Rage
Yet Barnabei is asking one more time before the state executes him for the rape and murder of Sarah J. Wisnosky: “Do a DNA test on the evidence. Find out whose blood it is under Sarah’s fingernails before you kill me.”
Two weeks ago, Barnabei was convinced one piece of untested evidence – the tiny, bloodstained crescents of Wisnosky’s clipped fingernails – would prove his innocence.
“If I know Sarah, she scratched one of them,” said Barnabei during an interview at Sussex I State Prison in Waverly. “She damn well fought them with everything she had.”
Now, with less than two weeks until his scheduled Sept. 14 execution, Barnabei and his attorneys are more convinced than ever that what’s under the dead girl’s nails will point to the truth.
That’s because the nails were missing for at least a couple of days. In a development ripped from a TV drama, the envelope containing Wisnosky’s fingernail clippings and other genetic material wasn’t in the Norfolk Circuit Court locker where it was supposed to be when the governor asked about them. By late Friday morning, the envelope had been found.
Gilmore has ordered the Virginia State Police to investigate what happened. Barnabei’s attorneys have demanded “an immediate and impartial investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Whatever happened, the fact that the envelope was unaccounted for only intensifies Barnabei’s desire for the DNA testing.
“We still want to test it. We think the disappearance makes it all the more likely that somebody took it because they are afraid of what it’s going to show,” said Linda Goldstein, one of Barnabei’s attorneys. “The clear implication is the governor was going to test the material.”
Gilmore spokesman Mark Miner said Friday that Goldstein’s take was inaccurate.
“The governor goes through each of these cases individually and determines the facts, what’s out there. He had not determined whether DNA testing was necessary in this case,” said Miner.
Gilmore is likely the one who will have to decide what happens next. Miner said Gilmore wouldn’t make any decisions regarding Barnabei until he receives the state police report on its investigation.
One by one, the courts have refused Barnabei’s request for additional DNA testing, saying there was ample circumstantial evidence to convict him.
Only a stay from Gilmore – or a longshot audience before the U.S. Supreme Court — stands in the way of Barnabei and his Sept. 14 execution.
Prosecutors have argued in court that further testing is a waste of time that will find either nothing but Wisnosky’s own blood or the first physical proof of what a jury decided was true: Barnabei was the lone killer who raped the Old Dominion University freshman, then beat in her head and strangled her before dumping the dying woman into the Lafayette River.
Barnabei is willing to take that chance. He has nothing to lose and maybe a life – his – to reclaim.
Police didn’t find much evidence when they investigated Sarah Wisnosky’s death. They found her blood in Barnabei’s room, but they couldn’t find Barnabei.
Barnabei’s attorneys have asked Gilmore to order DNA testing of at least 12 pieces of evidence, using techniques not available during the 1995 trial. Some of the evidence, like the fingernail clippings, have never been subjected to DNA testing. Other pieces, such as hairs found on a bloodstained towel, couldn’t be tested in 1995 because the DNA technology hadn’t yet evolved to that point.
The semen collected on Wisnosky’s vaginal swab, although matching Barnabei’s DNA, could be put through a more precise test that could reveal the presence of a second man.
One expert hired by Barnabei signed an affidavit saying the DNA results of Wisnosky’s vaginal swab either show a test improperly performed or inaccurately interpreted. The University of North Carolina biology professor said he was retained by Barnabei’s trial lawyers two months before the trial and told they didn’t have enough money to have him testify or advise them in court.
The fingernail clippings were among items supposed to be tested as part of the original investigation, but the detective in charge pulled them from the batch. The prosecution never explained why. The defense never asked.
They were preserved, experts say, in keeping with a classic evidence-gathering technique that acknowledges a victim almost always fights off an attacker, especially during attempted strangulation. In fact, according to a state forensics report, Wisnosky’s fingernail clippings contained not only bloodstains but traces of hair and fiber.
Derek Barnabei is a good storyteller. He relates the tale of his trip to death row with the kind of animation reserved for cocktail party chatter about a good vacation gone bad. “Three to four weeks down in Norfolk, and it’s gonna cost me my life,” he says, a “Who knew?” expression on his face.
He appears confident. He is articulate. He is the smooth talker both friends and foes have billed him to be.
There’s an explanation for every lie the prosecution says it caught him in, a good reason for all the misunderstanding. From evidence that he is a compulsive liar to his ex-wife’s contention that he’d beaten her, Barnabei says he has proof that he’s the one telling the truth and everyone else is twisting it.
“Check it out,” he challenges again and again.
He makes his path to “The Row” sound like a bitter pill, a lethal dose of equal parts coincidence, conspiracy and hapless investigation.
He acts sincere as he acknowledges the likelihood of having to swallow it.
“I’ll probably die because I am going out there saying I am innocent,” he says. “I’d have a better chance of living by arguing there was a constitutional error made.”
In the world according to Barnabei, he is the victim.
Barnabei was 26 in early August 1993, when he pulled his 1979 Chevy Impala into Virginia Beach. He’d come from New Jersey, leaving home and an accusation of fraud that stemmed from a home remodeling job he hadn’t done. He’d gotten a promising lead for some quick work from a businessman at the beach, which turned out to be a bust.
He called himself “Serf,” short for Serafino, his father’s and son’s name. He told people he was in the architectural field, but worked as a waiter. The 13-year-old Impala he drove was a second car, he explained. An Alfa Romeo back home was his primary ride.
By the beginning of September, Barnabei had connected with members of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity at ODU, which led to renting a room in a house near campus. Four other men, some of them students and fraternity brothers, lived there too.
For three weeks he lived large, partying daily with his new friends and picking up enormous bar tabs. He had sexual encounters with several girls, including a 17-year-old freshman from Lynchburg, Sarah J. Wisnosky. He called the 5-foot-5, 95-pound slip of a young woman “my main girlfriend.”
That ended abruptly on Sept. 22, 1993, when Wisnosky was found dead in the Lafayette River, and her blood was found on Barnabei’s waterbed frame and bedroom walls.
The murder was brutal, the evidence circumstantial. Small blood spatters recovered from Barnabei’s waterbed, his bedroom walls, one of Wisnosky’s shoes and a surfboard Barnabei had kept in his room for a friend were tested. Not a speck matched anyone’s blood but the victim’s.
No one ever saw Barnabei harm Wisnosky on any of the occasions they were together. Not one of the five others in the Norfolk rooming house in the early hours of that Wednesday morning ever heard any suspicious noises coming from Barnabei’s first-floor bedroom, where police said the crime occurred.
No one ever saw Wisnosky’s body being unloaded from a car or truck at the riverbank, as police believe must have happened. Despite the crushing head wound she’d suffered, no blood was ever recovered from Barnabei’s car.
Much was never found: the murder weapon, Wisnosky’s clothes, Barnabei’s bedding.
Barnabei wasn’t found, either, until three months later. Akron, Ohio, police investigating burglaries in an apartment-packed neighborhood saw his parked car – the same one he’d driven in Norfolk – and ran the out-of-state tags. The outstanding murder warrant came back and Barnabei, living with a woman under an assumed name, was arrested without incident.
Barnabei explains that he left Norfolk in the late afternoon on Sept. 22. He planned to visit his mother for her birthday, but headed to Ohio after a housemate paged him with word that Wisnosky had been killed and he was a suspect.
He offers no elaborate excuse for his flight.
“I totally snapped,” he says. “I just flipped out.”
While no physical evidence ever linked Barnabei to the murder, his semen was recovered from Wisnosky’s body.
Barnabei admitted to police the two had sex that day, but says it was consensual just like their previous encounters.
The prosecution called it rape, citing the medical examiner’s finding of a vaginal bruise and a small anal tear on the girl’s body. The wounds, the medical examiner testified under cross-examination, could have been due to rough sex.
With a rape charge on top of the murder, prosecutors were able to request the death penalty.
On June 15, 1995, they got it.
Although Barnabei says money was an issue at his 1995 trial, it’s less of one now.
Barnabei’s supporters, led by his mother, Jane Barnabei, have raised enough to hire the experts who now question the prosecution’s results.
A New York man has put up a $50,000 cash reward for information leading to Barnabei’s exoneration, and also maintains the inmate’s Web site chat room at www.barnabei.com. Supporters have offered to pay for any DNA testing Gilmore may order.
“I knew the only way I could beat this thing was with money,” Barnabei says. “Bottom line: In America, justice has a price tag and I couldn’t afford it. A lot of other people can’t, either. Money is power in our system, and I still don’t have enough.”
He does have many supporters, including the Italian parliament, whose members have sent Gilmore a resolution opposing his execution. Like his brief days as a fraternity brother in Norfolk, Barnabei is the center of attention.
“I am the lucky one here,” he says of his place on death row. “I am one of the fortunate few who have been provided the opportunity to have some good people helping me in my struggle for justice.”
He believes people don’t want to hear religious arguments against the death penalty. They will, he says, consider something solid. Something like the indisputable science of a properly performed DNA test.
“You have to do it one case at a time,” he says. “I hope that there will be a horrifying enough case that people will say, ‘Enough is enough.'”
His attorney Goldstein wonders if Barnabei’s will be that case.
“This is a case that has all of these kind of smelly things about it,” she said. “When the evidence turns up missing, it makes all of these smelly things that happened earlier really reek.