Jury gets case of a killing outside day-care center Lester Barney says he and his wife were struggling over a knife that she brandished. The state calls it murder.

Posted: August 25, 2005

Was Lester Barney the guiltless target of an attack that ended with his estranged wife's accidental slaying? Or was he a vengeful killer with an overpowering fear of losing custody of their young son?

The question was put to jurors yesterday in closing arguments of Barney's murder trial in state Superior Court. The panel's answer will determine whether he returns home to his son or lives out his days in prison.

Barney, 60, of Cherry Hill, is accused of fatally stabbing his wife, Alla, 24, in the parking lot of their son's day-care center in Mount Laurel on Sept. 29, 2003. He could be sentenced to a term of 30 years to life if convicted.

After a final day of witnesses and summations, Judge John A. Almeida gave jury members their legal instructions and ordered them to return at 9 a.m. today to begin deliberating.

Barney, who has been in the Burlington County Jail since his arrest the night of the killing, took the stand again yesterday after testifying more than four hours on Tuesday. He said the stabbing was an accident. He had gone to the KinderCare Learning Center that day to see his son, Daniel, 4, as he did a few times each week. He started to leave after the visit, but turned around when he saw Alla Barney arrive to pick up their son.

He said he wanted to talk to her about maybe keeping Daniel for the night and also wanted to return some of the boy's clothes.

When he approached her she reached into her car, pulled out a steak knife and swung it at him, he claimed. He grabbed her wrist and they struggled, falling back into the car, where she was cut across her neck, he said.

In his closing, Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Robert VanGilst offered jurors another explanation.

"He came up behind her and he stabbed her in the throat. It was cold-blooded murder."

VanGilst said Barney had the chance earlier that day to talk to his wife in court, where a judge had ordered that a temporary restraining order brought by Alla Barney against her husband be made permanent.

Her temporary custody of Daniel was also extended by the judge. The issue was to be permanently decided at a later court hearing as part of a divorce action brought by Lester Barney.

Alla Barney, who lived in the couple's Westmont apartment, had been given custody since the restraining order was initially filed in July.

VanGilst said Barney would do anything to keep from losing Daniel.

"He wanted custody, he didn't get it, he was losing control of the situation, and he was going to do something about it," he said.

Lester and Alla Barney were married in 1998 after meeting online. Alla, a native of Ukraine, came to the United States to marry Barney, who had been divorced four times.

Barney acknowledged at the trial that he was using a dating service to try to meet other women even before he had filed for divorce in March 2003.

Defense lawyer Mike Riley urged jurors to consider what he said were holes in the state's theory.

The motive was baseless because Barney had agreed to mutual custody of Daniel and could not benefit by the death of his wife, Riley said.

"There is not a single reason in the world for him to hurt her, much less kill her," Riley told jurors. "The motive just does not make sense. This was an accident."

VanGilst said Barney fabricated his self-defense story.

He told the jury to remember that Barney acknowledged taking the knife used in the struggle and throwing it away as he drove home immediately afterward.

He also suggested that Barney's version of the fight was not supported by the location of blood in the car and the way her body was positioned.

Earlier in the day, VanGilst made Barney repeat the details of the struggle that led to Alla Barney's death.

"Is that the truth?" he asked when Barney had finished.

"Yes."

"Because you wouldn't lie, right?" VanGilst asked.

"So help me God," Barney said as he picked up the Bible used to swear in witnesses.

"That's a Bible you're holding?" VanGilst said.

"Yes sir," Barney replied.

"It also says 'Thou shalt not kill,' " VanGilst shot back.

Contact staff writer Joel Bewley at 609-261-0900 or jbewley@phillynews.com.

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