The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 2, 2014

10 years later: Has time helped heal wounds of officer shootings?

By Karen Middleton
For The News Courier

— A day after the killings of Athens Police Sgt. Larry Russell and Officer Tony Mims 10 years ago, dozens of residents came together Thursday on the Police Department lawn for a candlelight service to mark the men’s passing and to pray for healing.

The slaying of the officers sworn to “serve and protect” by a mentally ill Athens man tore a gaping wound in the consciousness of a community that has taken a decade to begin to heal.

Thursday, families of the officers, along with members of the Athens Police Department, Limestone County Sheriff’s Department and sponsoring members of the Mims-Russell AMVETS Post 21 conducted a memorial service in the City Council chambers to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of their passing.

The ceremony was a further step in the arduous task of healing. For the Mims and Russell families and the police officers with whom they worked shoulder to shoulder for years, healing is a lifelong task.

The task for the community 10 years ago was getting back to business. Life went on. Mayor Ronnie Marks was an Athens City Council member then, serving under then-mayor Dan Williams. Marks spoke at Thursday’s service, mentioning the improvements in the Police Department since that day, including a new station, improved equipment and changes in response training in the aftermath of that tragic day.

The wheels of justice also ground on. The public learned that the shooter, Farron Barksdale, had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 24 and had been committed to mental institutions five times between September 2001 and June 2003. In a 2013 interview, Barksdale’s mother, Mary Barksdale, said an inadequate mental health system failed her son.

Barksdale, 32, pleaded guilty to the shootings in August 2007 and was sentenced to life in prison. Barksdale died at Kilby Prison near Montgomery on Aug. 11, 2007, from unknown causes.

A doctor at the hospital where Barksdale had been taken after being found unresponsive in his cell initially said Barksdale, who had multiple bruises, had been beaten. An autopsy blamed Barksdale’s death on pneumonia, a blood disorder and hyperthermia (excessive body heat).

Barksdale’s mother, Mary, sued the prison system for wrongful death and won a $750,000 settlement. When at last the Alabama Department of Corrections released a 795-page summary of the investigation into Barksdale’s death in 2009, it offered no explanation as to how he suffered the bruises.

Mary Barksdale continues to live in the home on Horton Street to which Russell and Mims made their final service call before being gunned down by a deranged young man who was convinced he was being persecuted by aliens.

Healing for her will also be a lifelong task.