Justice or Mad Vengeance?

updated 10/06/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2008 01:00AM

Bill Barnes was sweeping the floors at a ShopRite in Philadelphia, where he worked as a janitor, when he got a pleasant surprise. His great-niece, Ashley O'Leary, popped in and chatted with him for a few minutes. No sooner had he said good-bye, however, than three other people came looking for him—and they weren't nearly as friendly. They were homicide detectives there to arrest him. "I thought this had to be some mistake because I knew I hadn't done anything wrong," Barnes, 72, recalls. "I said to myself, 'We'll get this straightened out shortly.' "

More than 13 months later, Barnes is still waiting for resolution in what has become an unusual and controversial case with strong feelings on both sides. Soon after Barnes's arrest, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham charged him with the murder of police Officer Walter Barclay, 64, who'd died the month before from a urinary tract infection. What did that have to do with Barnes? In November 1966—41 years earlier—Barnes had wounded Barclay during an attempted break-in, a crime for which he served 20 years in prison. Abraham contends that the original injury was the cause of Barclay's death—the longest such interval on record in a murder charge in American legal history. "When you set in motion a chain of events, a perpetrator of a crime is responsible for every single thing that flows from that chain of events ... as long as we can prove the chain is unbroken," said Abraham in bringing the charge. Barclay's family supports the D.A.'s decision, says Barclay's sister Rosalyn Harrison. "We feel very strongly they should pursue the murder charge," she says. But it has left Barnes stunned and bewildered. During an interview at the state prison in Waynesburg, Pa., he said he feels terrible about shooting Barclay and has thought of him every day since then, but insists, "I did not murder this man."

There are those who agree. While the case does not involve double jeopardy, which stipulates only that a defendant cannot be tried twice on the same charge, experts question whether Abraham can prove her case. No one can find Barclay's medical records from the time of the shooting until the late 1970s, and he was in two car accidents after the shooting. Former New York Police Department homicide commander Vernon Geberth says he doesn't see how Abraham can demonstrate that Barclay's death was a result of the shooting. "I'm all for prosecuting people who shoot police to the fullest extent of the law," says Geberth, author of Practical Homicide Investigation, a textbook used by police academies around the world. "However, if the case is 41 years old and the person died of a urinary tract infection, I'd like to know what the linkage is." Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police spokesman Bob Ballantine says there is such a link. "When Barnes shot Barclay he was a healthy young cop," he says. "Afterward, his quality of life was horrendous." Barnes, who has had two heart attacks and wears a heart monitor, was not allowed bail, so he's been in a maximum-security prison since August 2007, waiting for a trial that still hasn't been scheduled. Says his attorney Bobby Hoof: "I think they're hoping he'll die before he gets a trial."

Barnes was 30 years old when he and Barclay crossed paths at a West Philadelphia beauty shop in the early morning hours of November 27, 1966. Barclay was 23, with less than two years as a cop under his belt. He and his partner caught Barnes trying to pry open the shop's back door. Barnes shot Barclay in the leg and upper shoulder, with one of the bullets bruising his spine. Barnes was arrested three days later and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for attempted murder. After serving 14 years, Barnes was released, but it wasn't long before he was in trouble again. He committed armed robbery and ended up back in prison in 1981, sentenced to finish out the remainder of his sentence for shooting Barclay and 12 to 24 years for robbery. Barnes makes no excuses for himself. "It's a choice," Barnes says of his criminal past. "Low moral character. Low morals. I just didn't care."

A dozen years and numerous escape attempts later Barnes says he had an epiphany. He was in solitary confinement in March 1993 and realized he had to change his ways. According to state prison officials, he did, becoming a model inmate who enrolled in every program available, from anger management to victim awareness. "I made a decision to turn my life around," he says. "I didn't want to die in jail."

Barnes was released in 2005 on early parole at the age of 69. One of the first people he caught up with was Allen Hornblum, a Temple University professor who'd met him in prison while doing research for a book. Hornblum invited Barnes to speak to his urban studies classes. "He was a potent, powerful speaker," says Hornblum. "This was a guy who had wasted his life behind bars, regretted it and was passing on that advice and counsel to young people."

Barnes also began giving talks at the Eastern State Penitentiary Museum, which closed its doors as a prison in 1971 but is where he'd spent six years in the 1960s. He was so popular the museum began paying him $50 a talk, says Sean Kelley, the museum's program director: "He never justifies his behavior."

Barnes also found a job as a janitor at a local ShopRite. He began to reconnect with his son, 41-year-old Mike Friel, who wasn't even born when he shot Barclay. Friel introduced Barnes to his children for the first time a couple of weeks before his arrest last year. "I started living like a normal, honest person does," Barnes says. His son, who waited until he was sure his father was truly a changed man before introducing him to his kids, says his father has paid his dues for the crime. "You're taking a guy the system already corrected and throwing him back in."

Later this month, Hoof will try to get the murder charge dismissed, but it seems likely that Barnes will have to stand trial. (In preparing the defense, Hoof has hired noted forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.) Meanwhile, all Barnes yearns for is to spend his twilight years getting to know his family from outside prison walls. "My whole life is a failure," he says. "You don't live in prison. You just exist."

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