James D. Burnette has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for his involvement with harboring two missing teenage girls at a residence on Mt. Tussell Road in the Knifley community.
Circuit Judge Judy Vance Murphy sentenced Burnette, 53, in Adair Circuit Court on Tuesday. He received five years each on two counts of custodial interference, a Class D felony; 10 years for unlawful transaction with a minor, 1st degree, a Class D felony; three years for possession of a controlled substance, 1st degree, first offense, methamphetamine, a Class D felony; 12 months on possession of drug paraphernalia, a Class A misdemeanor; 12 months for sexual misconduct, a Class A misdemeanor; and two traffic violations were merged.
Murphy ruled that all counts would be served concurrently for a five-year term except for unlawful transaction with a minor, which would be served consecutively, for a total of 15 years.
Burnette, a former pharmacist, pleaded guilty to the reduced charges last month. He entered an Alford plea on several of the charges, including the unlawful transaction with a minor. An Alford plea is a guilty plea that does not admit guilt but admits that there is enough evidence for a possible conviction.
Two attorneys spoke on behalf of Burnette then he made his own plea before Judge Murphy. The attorneys, Abraham Jones, an attorney from Raleigh, N.C., and Elizabethtown attorney Eric Bates, portrayed Burnette as a good man who made some bad decisions after facing depression then becoming addicted to methamphetamine.
“He is a good man that made very bad mistakes, not a bad man who just continues to do bad things,” Jones said.
Burnette became emotional as he spoke to the judge about his life. He said he did not come from wealth and had worked hard for everything he had.
“Later in my life, the last couple, three years, there were changes in my life that brought on depression and I made mistakes,” he said. “I just want a chance to get my life back in order.”
Burnette and his attorneys asked the judge to consider probation, which Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Wright opposed.
Wright said he agreed that it’s a shame that Burnette is losing a successful life, but “he put himself in the position he did.”
Burnette agreed to a plea deal so details of the case did not unfold during a trial. However, Wright said that two things could be ascertained by the charges Burnette pleaded guilty to.
“Two things met, and that was methamphetamine – drugs – and minor children – 17-year-old girls. That came together because of James Burnette,” Wright said. “I understand that he may be suffering from depression, but at the end of the day, a 53-year-old man harboring 17-year-old girls, providing methamphetamine for at least one of those girls, this is what the court has accepted guilty pleas to.”
Judge Murphy acknowledged Burnette’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions, but said the court could not overlook what had taken place.
She also commented on criticism on social media after a human trafficking charge against Burnette was dismissed during the plea agreement.
“I am not sure that human trafficking was the right charge, and obviously the counsel all working together must not have thought that because there was an amendment,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that something horrible in this county hasn’t been committed and it certainly doesn’t mean that the judge was paid off or the other lovely things that people like to say.”
Burnette was given credit for time served. He was incarcerated for most of the period since charges were filed against him in January 2019.
By Sharon Burton