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For most Americans, the thought of Bermuda evokes an edenic haven, complete with sandy beaches, pristine sea and favorable tax laws. But for Little Rock securities lawyer Gary Barket, the British-controlled island has become a prison. After being arrested at the Bermuda International Airport on Jan. 25 for weapons possession, Barket is barred from leaving the country and could get 10 years in jail. Barket pleaded not guilty to the charges. He won't go to trial until June 23.
The 10-year sentence is in line with tough Bermudian gun laws. But Barket and his lawyers say that Bermudian prosecutors are not exercising proper discretion in his case — particularly considering the accidental nature of the gun possession. According to information from people familiar with the case, Barket placed two guns and four ammo rounds in his hanging clothes bag three months before his trip and then forgot about them. One was not stored in a case and was missing its clip, which rendered it useless. A second pistol was in a leatherette pouch, which also included the ammo and a receipt from when Barket's father-in-law purchased the gun.
Last year, Barket's wife, Terry, decided she wanted to have her deceased parents' cremated remains interred at Arlington National Cemetery. With help from U.S. Rep Vic Snyder's office, her request was approved. When she went to retrieve the remains, which were stored in a closet, she came across the two weapons. Gary Barket decided to hide them in the luggage. He used the same luggage on a January business trip to Bermuda. He was not stopped in the United States and he did not notice or remember the guns until he was detained while trying to return to the U.S. from the Bermuda airport.
According to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, firearms may not be carried in checked baggage unless they are unloaded, locked in a hard-sided container, and declared to the airline.
Although the gun possession appears to be entirely unintended, and though the weapons were leaving the country rather than coming in, Bermudian authorities are throwing the book at Barket. The case has been assigned to the Supreme Court, which metes out stiffer penalties than the lower Magistrates Court.
A conviction on first-offense gun possession in the Supreme Court carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. Penalties are gentler in the Magistrates Court, where a first conviction carries no mandatory minimum. There is a maximum sentence of five years and the possibility of a $10,000 fine.
Saul Froomkin, Barket's defense lawyer and Bermuda's attorney general from 1981-1991, could not recall a case similar to Barket's ever being brought before the tougher Supreme Court. He said a previous offender who accidentally transported two laser-sighted Glocks into Bermuda in a filing cabinet got off with a fine in the Magistrates Court. He's baffled by Barket's assignment to the higher court.
Bermuda Director of Public Prosecutions Rory Field did not return a call for comment.
Several Arkansas officials, including Gov. Mike Beebe and Mayor Mark Stodola, have written letters in support of Barket's character and outlined his service as the former chair of the Little Rock Port Authority Board. Invoking Barket's nickname, friends have created political buttons declaring “Free Sparky.”
Barket has heavier artillery behind him as well: Snyder's office has been lobbying on Barket's behalf with the State Department, the American Consulate General in Bermuda, the Bermudian attorney general, and Great Britain's ambassador to the United States.
Snyder's previous contact with the Barkets about the Arlington burial spurred him to write a letter of support to Froomkin. But Snyder said that it's not uncommon for his office to assist constituents in difficult situations when they're abroad. Generally those are passport, visa and health problems. “This is a very unique situation,” said Snyder. “We have not been involved in anything like this before.”
Barket was arraigned before the Supreme Court on March 3. Prosecutor Field has discretion to reassign charges to the lower Magistrates Court until the scheduled June 23 court date. As of yet, there is no sign that he is considering that route.
“I continue to be hopeful that at some point people will appreciate this unique set of facts that points to this completely innocent mistake by Gary,” Snyder said.
If Barket were to be convicted, he could proceed to Bermuda's appeals court. His final recourse would be the Privy Council in Britain. He could also apply to the governor of Bermuda for a pardon, but that is not a promising route to freedom. “It has to go before a committee,” Froomkin said. “It's pretty rare, let me put it that way.”
Barket is free on $100,000 bail, but his passport has been confiscated and he is required to report in person to the police daily. Though he has continued to work with Cox Hallett Wilkinson, the law firm that originally brought him to Bermuda, he has had to turn down potential new clients over the past two months.
Barket said old friends have called to check in, and he's had visits from his wife and a former law professor. Without a favorable verdict at trial or a change of heart from Bermudian prosecutors, though, he faces severe restrictions on his already limited freedom. “It was a totally innocent mistake,” Barket said. “I'm fighting for my life to survive this ordeal.”