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Woman sentenced for killing sister

Barbara Burns shot her mentally disabled sister in the head in 2004. The body was found six months later. She received a 15-year prison term Tuesday.

Published July 18, 2006

LARGO – Even the lead detective called Barbara Burns the nicest murderer he had ever met.

Burns doted over her mentally disabled sister, Debbie, for 40 years. She sacrificed many of life’s pleasures to care for her younger sibling, who could be crabby and demanding.

But on an August night two years ago, Barbara snapped. She shot her sister in the head with a .38-caliber revolver, killing Debbie on her 40th birthday.

Prosecutors and Barbara’s attorney both realized this was not your standard murder case. In a fairly rare move, prosecutors on Tuesday allowed Barbara to plead guilty to a manslaughter charge and receive a 15-year prison term.

After the shooting, Barbara lived with her sister’s rotting body in their St. Petersburg double wide for six weeks, then fled the state. Movers found Debbie’s badly decomposed body six months later after the bank foreclosed on the house.

Detectives tracked Barbara to Virginia and arrested her on a charge of first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, Barbara quietly answered questions posed to her by Pinellas Circuit Judge Doug Baird before the sentence was handed down. With credit for time already served in jail and gain time, Barbara could be out of prison in just under 12 years.

“It’s just an unusual, compelling situation,” said Michael Hays, the assistant public defender who represented Barbara Burns. “She didn’t have any prior criminal history at all. She was just in a situation where she just snapped.”

If convicted of first-degree murder, Barbara Burns could have received one of two punishments: life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty.

Prosecutor Kendall Davidson said he didn’t believe Barbara Burns, now 55, would pose a threat to society when she was released from prison – one of the reasons his office agreed to okay the plea deal.

“I would not expect her to be a danger in the future,” Davidson said.

He said a sister and brother of the Burns sisters wrote letters urging a lighter sentence.

“She is a gentle person,” her brother, Robert Burns, wrote in a letter. “Everyone she comes in contact with likes her.

I don’t think she belongs in a prison for hardened criminals. She will not survive. That would be like putting a gentle beagle in a room full of attack-trained pit bulls.”

 The case was so unusual that the St. Petersburg Times published a two-part series about it in September.

The Burns sisters were born 13 years apart in Maryland. At a young age, Debbie got a high fever that damaged her brain. Her mind would never outgrow that of a 6-year-old and she never would be able to care for herself, her brother told the Times.

Barbara became her main caretaker. Eventually, they moved to Florida with their mother, who later died. Another brother also died, leaving Debbie and Barbara with his estate, worth about $350,000.
Barbara spent the money taking Debbie on trips to California and Australia and buying her memorabilia from favorite movies and TV shows like Star Wars and Snow White.

Three years later, the money was gone, but Debbie continued to demand the comforts she had become used to. Barbara took a job and worked extra shifts trying to make ends meet, but their mortgage on the double-wide on

Yellow Pine Street in St. Petersburg was too much.

On the night of Aug. 15, 2004, Debbie pestered her sister for more things. They began arguing about money. After Debbie fell asleep, Barbara grabbed a .38-caliber revolver she kept in a dresser. She pointed the gun at Debbie’s head and pulled the trigger.

“I just took it all in to the breaking point,” Barbara told the Times last year from the Pinellas County Jail. “Then I exploded.”

Barbara wrapped Debbie in blankets and a shower curtain. She cranked the air conditioner and bought potpourri and air fresheners. Six weeks later, she headed to Virginia and began working for a convenience store.

After movers found Debbie’s body six months later, detectives used bank records to track Barbara to Virginia. She at first denied having a sister, then broke down and admitted to killing Debbie.

“She kept crying. She said she wished she hadn’t done it. She was sorry,” Pinellas sheriff’s Detective Ed Judy told the Times. “She’s a really nice person, as far as murderers go. She’s the nicest murderer I’ve ever met.”

Chris Tisch can be reached at 727-892-2359 or

[Last modified July 18, 2006, 19:13:08]

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