BEST OF 2022: Two suspects sentenced for burning infant in Northwest Louisiana

This Best of the NPJ for 2022 story was originally published on May 5, 2022.

Hannah Barker, 26 of Montgomery, was sentenced today, May 4, in a Natchitoches Parish courtroom as part of a plea agreement with the state in the burning death of her 6-month old son Levi Ellerbe. She was sentenced to 30 years for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and 10 years for manslaughter.

The sentences will run concurrent and Barker will receive credit for the time she’s already served since her arrest in July of 2018.

An independent defense attorney explained that Barker will likely end up serving 6 years of her sentence with the opportunity to knock even more time off her sentence by participating in life enrichment programs while in prison. Barker’s defense stressed that the sentences were non violent for the purpose of sentencing under the Department of Corrections.

Levi Ellerbe was six months old in July 2018 when Barker initially told police he disappeared when two men confronted her at her home and pepper-sprayed her in the face. She said she escaped the confrontation and when she returned to her home, Levi was missing. The child was found a few miles away with severe burns over 90% of his body. He died several hours later in a Shreveport hospital.

Barker’s girlfriend, Felicia Marie-Nicole Smith, 29 of Natchitoches, admitted to committing the homicide.

The sentencing was done under an Alford plea for Barker. This plea allows a defendant to claim to be innocent without taking the risk of going to trial.

Barker’s attorney J. Dhu Thompson issued the following statement:
This case is an absolute tragedy on so many levels. One is the horrific manner in which baby Levi was killed by Felicia Smith. Second is what my client has also had to endure throughout this process. She’s lost her only child to the horrible and unimaginable actions of Felicia Smith, and while having to grieve and mourn her baby boy, she’s had to do so while losing years of her life and her freedom in the process. Faced with he resources of the state against her, the emotions of the case in front of a jury and the risk of a sentence that would incarcerate her for the rest of her life, my client had to make the decision to choose what was in her best interest and to accept a plea that will allow her to get out of jail in a few years while also maintaining her innocence. This was the basis of the Alford plea done today, which as the case law provides, allows a person to accept a best interest plea under protestation of innocence.

Immediately after Barker left the courtroom, her co-defendant Felicia Smith was led in after a request was made to move her sentencing to May 4 while the deceased families were already in attendance. She was sentenced to 40 years for manslaughter, 30 years for conspiracy to commit murder, and 10 years for cruelty to juveniles.

The sentences are consecutive and Smith will receive credit for the time she’s already served since her arrest.

Both defendants’ sentences were made without the opportunity for probation or suspension of the sentence.

Kathy Ellerbe, Levi’s paternal grandmother, provided an impact statement during the court proceeding to both defendants.

“The loss of my grandson and knowing how he was murdered has been devastating. For the past three years, our hearts have been broken and there will always be a void in our lives because of this evil. I will never forget the joy Levi brought to us in his short life. I want to remember him in a happy way and not have to relive all of this again during a trial,” said Ellerbe prior to the hearing.

Billy Ellerbe, Levi’s father, thanked Natchitoches City Police Lieutenant Jeff Townson and the first responders for their compassion in the case.

District Attorney Billy Joe Harrington and Special Prosecutor Clifford R. Strider, III prosecuted the cases.

“We were able to secure convictions on both defendants, despite the lack of physical evidence on Barker, who enlisted Smith to carry out the crime. We could not allow the mother, who planned to have her baby killed, to not be held responsible for her actions,” said District Attorney Harrington.

“Both defendants are culpable in this horrible crime and today Hanna Barker admitted as such when she pleaded guilty to avoid putting her fate in the hands of a jury,” said Strider.

“In my experience prosecuting cases throughout Louisiana, this case ranks as one of the most heinous and callous acts of cruelty I have ever seen,” said Strider, who has over 40 years experience in prosecuting capital cases and violent crimes.

“After numerous meetings and extensive input from the family of the victim, we agree that today’s guilty plea and prison sentences at hard labor for both defendants will begin to bring some sense of closure to the family,” said Strider.

Harrington commended the dedicated work of the Louisiana Fire Marshal’s Office, the Natchitoches Police Department, and the Natchitoches Fire Department. Their commitment to justice was indispensable in obtaining these convictions. Harrington specifically noted the tireless and professional assistance rendered by Lt. Jeff Townson of the Natchitoches Police Department.

“Our prosecution team spent thousands of hours in developing this case. Every minute was worth it to secure guilty pleas from the mother who devised an evil plan to have her son killed and from Barker’s girlfriend who carried out Barker’s plan. In Barker’s case, there was little physical evidence to implicate her in the murder of Levi, but substantial circumstantial evidence was developed by law enforcement. Apparently, the threat of testimony by Smith, coupled with the circumstantial evidence, motivated Barker to accept responsibility for her actions. We were fortunate to obtain Barker’s guilty plea considering the nature of this crime and lack of physical evidence,” said Harrington.