PHILADELPHIA — The continued imprisonment of an elderly man acquitted of murder charges filed after a police officer he shot in 1966 died in 2007 is a vindictive effort by authorities to have him die in prison and a violation of his constitutional right to due process, his lawyers argued Tuesday.
William Barnes, 76, has been incarcerated since the August 2007 death of police Officer Walter Barclay, whom Barnes shot and paralyzed 41 years earlier during a botched burglary. Barnes had served 16 years for shooting Barclay but was charged with murder after the officer died.
Although a jury acquitted Barnes in May 2010, he remained in prison for having a cellphone and driving a car without his parole officer's approval at the time of his 2007 arrest. He was given six months for those technical violations but has been repeatedly denied parole.
"The bottom line is he's going to get denied for different reasons every time," defense attorney Samuel Silver told U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Rice at a hearing Tuesday. "There is no end in sight for Bill Barnes if we leave it to the parole board."
Rice will make a recommendation report to U.S. District Judge James Knoll Gardner in Allentown on whether Barnes' rights have been violated and whether the case can advance in federal court.
Before the murder charges, Silver told the judge, the parole board released Barnes for reasons that still stand: He expressed remorse for his wrongdoings, maintained a perfect conduct record and showed no indication of returning to a life of crime.
The board's view of Barnes radically changed when the murder charges were filed and persisted even after the acquittal, Silver said. The change occurred as the lead prosecutor, the officer's relatives and the Fraternal Order of Police vowed to fight Barnes' release.
Barnes has been denied parole four times – twice since his acquittal – based on what Silver called constantly shifting requirements for parole, unexplained reversals of prior assessments about his contrition and threat to society, and over-reliance on "highly inflammatory" correspondence from the assistant district attorney who lost at trial and "wants the board of parole to undo the jury's verdict."
A district attorney's office spokeswoman declined to comment except to say "the letter speaks for itself." Prosecutor Ed Cameron calls Barnes, among other things, a "vile criminal" who "should spend the rest of his life in prison."
If he serves the maximum for the crimes for which he was granted parole shortly before Barclay's death – unrelated robbery and escape convictions dating from the 1980s – Barnes will be eligible for release in 2030 at age 94.
U.S. Attorney Barry Kramer said the case belongs in state court, not federal court, and the state parole board followed proper procedures when deciding on Barnes' parole.
There is no "grand, nefarious conspiracy between the district attorney's office and the Board of Probation and Parole," Kramer said. "Every board decision was made pursuant to Pennsylvania statute."
Barclay was a 23-year-old rookie investigating a report of a prowler when Barnes, then a 30-year-old petty criminal with a long record, shot him Nov. 27, 1966. Paralyzed from the waist down, Barclay suffered from decades of infections, bedsores and other ailments before dying at age 64 of complications from a urinary tract infection.
Barnes spent much of his life in prison, largely for robbery, theft and escape, but was paroled in April 2007. When he was re-arrested after Barclay died four months later, Barnes was living in a halfway house and working as a supermarket janitor. He also was lecturing at Temple University and Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum, where he once served time.
In charging Barnes with murder, prosecutors said his actions directly caused Barclay's death four decades later. Barnes' lawyers said Barclay suffered from falls, car accidents and caretaker abuse over the years that contributed to his demise.
Barnes attended Tuesday's hearing via video teleconference from prison but did not testify. Jimmy Barnes, who came to court with other family members, said his older brother is "cautiously optimistic."
"Parole is redemption," he said. "He's determined to come out one more time."