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January 29, 2018

Three women plead guilty to fatal beating of homeless man in Philadelphia

Robert Barnes' family hears disturbing details, but is happy that justice is finally served

Courts Crime
Robert Barnes Diane Barnes/for PhillyVoice

Robert Barnes remained comatose for months after a brutal attack outside an Olney gas station. His family announced his death on Nov. 25, 2015.

Diane Barnes heard some things in a Philadelphia courtroom on Monday morning that she wished she'd never heard, but she knew she had to hear them.

It was more than two years after her brother Robert – a 51-year-old homeless man – died of complications from blunt-force impact suffered during a brutal attack outside a Philadelphia gas station seven months earlier.

The story not only drew widespread attention because the attack was captured by security cameras, but returned to the public consciousness in November 2016 when it was misrepresented as evidence of anti-Trump protesters beating a homeless veteran.

Surrounded Monday by several relatives and supporters in Courtroom 607 at the Criminal Justice Center, she finally got to see three women charged with the April 7, 2015 assault in Olney.

One of the suspects, Aleathea Gillard, is the mother of two of three juveniles involved in the attack. All three juveniles had already pleaded guilty to third-degree murder.

On this day, the trio of women would take a similar approach to the charges against them. The 37-year-old Gillard – along with Shareena Joachim, 26, and Kaisha Duggins, 27 – would also plead guilty.

Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

In December 2015, mourners said goodbye to Robert Barnes, 51, at a funeral in Manayunk. Barnes died seven months after being attacked outside an Olney gas station.

The charges – voluntary manslaughter, conspiracy and possession of an instrument of crime – will land them behind bars for a maximum of 22.5 to 45 years in prison, though they won't likely face the max when they return to court for sentencing on April 20.

Before Monday's 75-minute hearing got underway in Common Pleas Court Judge Sandy L.V. Bird's courtroom, Diane Barnes looked across the gallery at a group there to support the three defendants. That group of nine included a young girl.

"You know what's sad to me?" she asked. "I see a child who won't have a mother now. We all lost. No one won."

Byrd called the hearing to order at 10:15 a.m., warned the people in the courtroom – about 20 in all – against making outbursts, and discussed the nuances of pleading guilty as opposed to proceeding with a jury trial.

"I said, 'I'll get them, Bobby. You know your sister will get them.'" – Diane Barnes

Gillard stood accused of, among other things, hitting Barnes with a wooden chair leg, while Duggins used a hammer in the attack. According to Assistant District Attorney Erica Rebstock, Joachim attempted to pepper spray the victim in an attempt to blind him, but actually sprayed one of the juvenile defendants instead.

The attack came about after Gillard's 10-year-old son claimed that Barnes had hit him and used a racial slur. There was no evidence of this, or any interaction, seen on surveillance footage, Rebstock said.

Still, the group of six returned to the gas station to punch, kick and strike Barnes with the aforementioned objects before fleeing the scene quickly.

"Witnesses yelled at them to stop, but they were ignored," she said. "The video shows no physical or verbal altercation (between the 10-year-old or homeless man) that afternoon or evening."

Between now and April, Byrd will receive pre-sentence and mental-health reports on the women before sentencing them. Duggins said that she was diagnosed as bi-polar earlier in life and again while in custody, the latter diagnosis requiring medication.

Barnes said her sister Linda would be traveling to Philadelphia from Connecticut for the sentencing. They need to find out whether they can realize their wish of bringing Bobby's ashes to the courthouse.

"It was very emotional. I had to look at the faces of the people who beat my brother to death," she said, noting that she saw some smirking from the defendants during the hearing. "But I'm going to keep fighting for Bobby. This courtroom will be packed in April."

Then, Diane Barnes remembered the death-bed promise she made to her brother before he died in a nursing home in November 2015.

"I said, 'I'll get them, Bobby. You know your sister will get them,'" she said tearfully. "When I would talk to him, I know he could hear me. He would start coughing or choking when I'd tell him things. … Bobby would be proud of me today."