Naples Community School senior Brent Bartholomew’s interest in a career in criminal defense only grew through his experience with Collier County Teen Court.
And his passion has intensified since watching a documentary featuring a high-profile murder case from Tennessee, which produced a result that absolutely shocked him.
Bartholomew spent his summer vacation reviewing the 2019 Angel Bumpass murder trial transcripts.
After about 100 hours of research, he was outraged by some of the issues he perceived that led to Bumpass’ conviction. She was convicted of killing a 68-year-old man in a 2009 robbery in Washington Hills, 11 miles from Chattanooga, Tennessee, when she was just 13.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was watching,” Bartholomew said of A&E’s “The Accused: Guilty or Innocent” which featured an episode about Franklin Bonner’s homicide. “The whole time I expected a not guilty verdict from the jury.”
Instead, while his co-accused, Mallory Vaughn, was acquitted, Bumpass was convicted of first degree murder and particularly aggravated attempted robbery following a four-and-a-half-hour jury deliberation on the 3rd October 2019, in Hamilton. County court.
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Bumpass was sentenced to life in prison and is not eligible for parole until 2079.
Bartholomew said he felt the need for criminal justice reform before learning of Bumpass’s conviction when he volunteered as a defense lawyer at Collier County Teen Court.
This first-time Youth Defender Diversion Program run by the 20th Florida Court Circuit provides an opportunity for community volunteers to participate in shaping constructive offender outcomes.
In approaching crimes ranging from misdemeanors to third degree felonies where the defendant has pleaded guilty, high school students act as lawyers, jurors, clerks and bailiffs. Students interview offenders and their families, then present their case to a student jury. The jury decides the penalties and the course to follow for the offender.
“I really, strongly sympathize with the criminal defense,” Bartholomew said. “I think that the defendants are often wrongly accused, overcharged or over-punished. From what I’ve seen in youth court, the prosecution doesn’t quite understand the whole picture, the whole context surrounding the circumstances of the accused. I think it’s important to understand why people are doing what they are doing.
In the case of Bumpass, this is what Bartholomew believes the defendant, now 24, did not do. Or more importantly, what the prosecution has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.
The cold case was reopened in 2018 when the 2010 interviews with inmate Nicholas Cheaton were reconsidered. Cheaton, Vaughn’s cousin, said Vaughn confessed to him to robbing and killing Bonner, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent testified at trial that no fingerprints link Vaughn to the scene. However, Bumpass’s fingerprints were found on a roll of duct tape that was said to have been used to bind Bonner’s feet, arms, head, nose and mouth, resulting in his suffocation.
Much as the defense argued, Bartholomew, who posted a YouTube video this summer exposing her research and opinions, argued that the fingerprint evidence should not have been sufficient to convict her.
“I think forensics is really overrated,” Bartholomew said. “The argument I’m going to make is that duct tape is a moving object. If you tear the tape off a roll, your fingerprints will naturally end up on that tape.
The defense provided an explanation with Bumpass’ grandfather testifying that he had served as a handyman for Bonner and that Bumpass was playing with his tools in his grandfather’s garage. The defense argued that it was possible that his grandfather loaned Bonner a roll of duct tape containing Bumpass’s fingerprints, the Times Free Press reported.
Among other arguments, Bartholomew also claims that it is implausible that a 13-year-old girl will tape Bonner so tightly that he chokes on him.
“I think the prosecution was trying to make extremely tenuous ties,” Bartholomew said.
Also echoing the defense, Bartholomew cited problems with Karl Fields, the lead investigator in the case.
The Times Free Press reported that Fields was fired from the Chattanooga Police Department for dereliction of duty and improper conduct over charges that he made sexual advances to a rape victim.
Fields was also accused in 2016 of tampering with or fabricating evidence in a rape case, the Times Free Press reported. The charges were finally dropped in 2017.
Although he admits he is far from an expert, Bartholomew said the arguments should entitle Bumpass to a new trial.
“First and foremost, I want Angel to be exonerated. I want her to get a new trial,” he said of Bumpass, whose next court date is October 8. I also want to raise awareness about wrongful convictions in general. It’s more common than you might think. “
At least 824,570 people who signed a Change.org petition demanding a new trial for Bumpass agree with Bartholomew.
High school student plans to create more content to support Bumpass between applications to colleges like Carnegie Mellon University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Florida, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania .
He’s aiming for law school and a possible path to criminal law in hopes of helping someone like Bumpass.