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Watch now: Police 'desecrated' ashes of Decatur toddler, lawsuit says

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The cremated ashes of Ta’Naja Barnes, the Decatur 2-year-old whose murder through neglect and starvation broke the heart of Central Illinois and helped change state law, are now at the center of a new legal controversy.

SPRINGFIELD — The cremated ashes of Ta’Naja Barnes, the Decatur 2-year-old whose murder through neglect and starvation broke the heart of Central Illinois and helped change state law, are now at the center of a new legal controversy.

Her 25-year-old father Dartavius Barnes, who lives in Springfield, is claiming his constitutional rights were violated after Springfield police pulled his vehicle over and officers “desecrated and spilled out the ashes” while searching for drugs in the urn of her cremains.

The traffic stop happened on April 6, 2020, more than a year after Ta’Naja had been found dead on Feb. 11, 2019, in a freezing bedroom of a filth-encrusted home in Decatur with no running water. Barnes did not have custody of his daughter and she had lived in Decatur with her eventual killers: her biological mother Twanka L. Davis, 23, and Davis’s boyfriend, Anthony Myers, 27.

Davis is serving a 20 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to first degree murder. Myers was found guilty of first degree murder in a jury trial and is serving a 30 year sentence. Illinois lawmakers later passed a sweeping set of legal reforms in an attempt to protect children like Ta’Naja, whose case had been handled by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; those legal changes later were renamed “Ta’Naja’s Law," in her memory.

Ta'Naja Barnes

Ta'Naja Barnes

The lawsuit filed by Barnes does not explain why he was driving around with his late daughter’s ashes in a car. But it claims there was no legal justification for the vehicle stop and the following search violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. It also said the handcuffed man was subjected to "false imprisonment." 

Watch now: Pritzker talks about Ta'Naja Barnes in March 2019

Gov. J.B. Pritzker answers questions from the Herald & Review editorial board in March 2019 regarding the Department of Children and Family Services in light of the death of 2-year-old Ta'Naja Barnes.

Barnes is seeking unspecified “compensatory and punitive damages” and alleges he “sustained injuries of severe emotional distress.”

The lawsuit has been filed with the Springfield Division of the United States District Court and names as defendants the city of Springfield and officers Colton Redding, Brian Riebling, Adam Westlake, Juan Resendez, Nicholas Renfro and Regan Molohon.

Dartavius Barnes

Dartavius Barnes, 23, the father of Ta'Naja Barnes, talks to media outside of the Macon County Courthouse on Feb. 27, 2019. 

A response filed by Emily A. Fancher, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City, denies all the allegations. And it asserts: “Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity as their conduct was justified by an objectively reasonable belief that it was lawful. Defendants are immune from liability under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act.”

Fancher did not return a call seeking comment Monday. Barnes is being represented by James C. Pullos of Chicago-based Clifford Law Offices, where Communications Partner Pamela Sakowicz Menaker told the Herald & Review the firm had no comment at this time.

The civil lawsuit, filed in October of 2020, is now grinding its way through the legal process. A final pretrial conference has been scheduled for Aug. 1, 2022 before U.S. District Judge Sue E. Myerscough.

Twanka L. Davis

Twanka L. Davis

As for the original Springfield traffic stop involving Barnes, a check of Sangamon County Circuit Court records shows that he was charged with misdemeanor possession of cannabis in April of 2020. But in a court hearing dated December 16, 2020 the charge was dismissed on motion by the Sangamon State Attorney’s Office.

This is not Barnes’s first legal action in the wake of Ta’Naja’s death. In March of 2020 the Urbana Division of the Central District Court dismissed a lawsuit he filed seeking damages from Decatur’s Webster-Cantrell Hall, the agency which had acted on behalf of DCFS before the child was returned to the custody of her mother. Barnes had also named Amanda Beasley-Ricks in the suit — a foster care case coordinator who was employed by Webster-Cantrell Hall — and claimed both had failed in their duty to protect his daughter.

Judges had ruled, in part, that the actions of Webster-Cantrell, by returning Ta’Naja to her mother’s care, had in effect meant “she was placed in no worse position than that in which she would have been had defendants not acted at all and thus… constitutional due process liability cannot lie against defendants.”

Contact Tony Reid at (217) 421-7977. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyJReid


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