Attorneys seek immediate parole for man cleared of Phila. police officer’s murder

Attorneys for an elderly Philadelphia man who remains in prison despite a jury clearing him in the murder of a city police officer filed a 54-page federal brief Wednesday night seeking his immediate release.

It maintains that state Board of Probation and Parole violated William Barnes’s right to due process with decisions that have been “arbitrary, vindictive and conscience-shocking.”

Barnes’s attorney Sam Silver said that he’d been granted the opportunity to review the Parole Board’s files.

In the brief, he wrote that the files demonstrated “that the Board has no intention of ever giving Mr. Barnes a fair hearing for his parole requests and that it will continue to deny him parole on improper, pretextual, and constantly changing grounds until 2030, when he will be 94 years old and will have served his entire term.”

A hearing on the brief, which asserts a concerted effort by law enforcement to punish Barnes for a crime of which he was found not guilty, is scheduled for Jan. 31. There, Silver will make a case that Barnes should be immediately granted parole.

The case history

In November 1966, Barnes – aka the “East Germantown Cowboy” – shot rookie police officer Walter Barclay, then 21, who interrupted an attempted burglary.

Barnes served two decades behind bars and Barclay lived a fitful existence of limited work, injuries from car accidents, heavy smoking, hepatitis, depression, rage that rendered him unwilling to cooperate with physical therapists, a possible stroke in 2005 and more hurdles than any man should bear. He died in 2007. The cause was listed as a urinary tract infection.

Upon his death, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham charged Barnes with homicide, claiming that Barclay’s death was a direct result of the shooting more than four decades earlier.

Barnes was re-arrested while working as a janitor at the Roxborough Shop-Rite and saddled with parole violations for carrying car keys and a cell phone which his attorney said was necessary in case of serious health incidents, like a heart attack Barnes suffered in 2006.

“My brother doesn’t make excuses for serving 52 years in jail,” the career criminal’s younger brother Jimmy said at the time. “He made bad choices and he paid the price for that. But it seems like someone was laying in wait to bring these homicide charges. Since when does justice served end with vengeance?”

The case grabbed national attention with stories in the New York Times and People magazine amid calls of a “dubious murder charge” that was a “waste of taxpayers’ money.” Police and survivors vehemently disagreed with that assessment – to them, Barnes is a cop killer – and the case went to trial in 2010 at the Criminal Justice Center.

Found not guilty of murder

On May 24, 2010, a jury found the 73-year-old not guilty of first-, second- or third-degree murder. Barclay’s sister Roslyn looked on, distraught. Barnes’ eyes welled up when the jury foreman announced the verdict. Before being escorted from the courtroom, Barnes, sporting a gray sweater and carrying a cane, thanked jurors and bellowed, “I love ya’s all” to supporters.

After the verdict was announced, Seth Williams issued a statement which read in part, “The bullet may not have immediately killed him, but it definitely took away his life. … William Barnes may not have been convicted of murder but it doesn’t take away from what he did.”

Said Jimmy Barnes outside the courtroom, “I never really saw him show emotion before. … It’s time to heal and move on.”

Barnes has not moved on. He remains at SCI Graterford on violations for which the Parole Board denied his request for release last April. State Board of Probation and Parole spokesman Leo Dunn said Barnes needed to “complete additional institutional programs, [and has] a negative recommendation from the Department of Corrections and prior unsatisfactory supervision history.”

The incarcerated man’s family, however, smelled a concerted effort to imprison Barnes so he dies behind bars. “He’s turned his life around for decades now,” Jimmy Barnes said. “It’s so unfair.”

Check back at NewsWorks.org as we update this story. 

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