William Barnes: ‘My greatest fear was dying while I was still in prison’

Three days after his release from Graterford Prison, William Barnes sat in the 36th floor conference room of his attorneys’ Center City office on Monday afternoon.

He wore the same outfit – gray sweater over a blue dress shirt and dark slacks – that he wore when a jury found that the two bullets he fired into rookie police Officer Walter Barclay in 1966 did not mean he was responsible directly for Barclay’s 2007 death.

Occasionally sipping a Pepsi, the 75-year-old accepted responsibility for leaving Barclay in a wheelchair for life, but said he “never once considered myself a murderer.”

Noting that he never gave up hope that he would be freed, he heeded the advice of attorneys and relatives who urged him “to think positively, and good things will happen. So, I thought positive.”


Barnes started the hour-long conversation, which was his first public interview, explaining that he had a feeling release was imminent after a friend visited him in prison last Thursday.

“I was returning to my cell when a guard said, ‘I have some news for ya. They called for a urine test,'” he said of the step that parolees must take before they’re released. “I gave the sample, and it was negative, of course. Everybody knew [I was getting out] before I did.”

That night, the last he would spend in cell B177, he called the friend who’d just visited him and said, “Come on up tomorrow and pick me up.”

The next morning, people on his cell block were “thrilled” when they saw him walk past on his way out of the prison through a loading area in which he’d been numerous times before. Only this time, he wasn’t cuffed.

“My greatest fear was dying while I was still in prison, especially since I’d turned my life around,” he admitted. When he walked out of Graterford, “I took a deep breath of freedom. It was so great. … Here I am, a free man.”

Not a murderer

Barnes, who became known as the East Germantown Cowboy after a Daily News story noted that’s what he was acting like on city streets, shot Barclay when the officer responded to a burglary in progress at an East Oak Lane beauty salon.

He can still recall, with vivid detail, the confrontation for which he served 16 years for aggravated assault. The cops were called because he was kicking the door loudly in an attempt to break in for cash. The weapon was a .38. He’d been drinking, but that’s an excuse he said he refuses to use. The bullets he fired during a struggle with Barclay and his partner ended up paralyzing the officer.

“It was the first time I ever shot anybody, and it was the last time,” said Barnes, who got away that night but was tracked down to Fairmount four days later. “It was the most shameful act I’ve ever done, and I live with that every day. How it altered his life, I’m deeply ashamed. There’s truth to the motto that crime does not pay. I’m sorry I didn’t learn that lesson as a younger man. … I just wish I could take it all back.”

When Barclay died of a urinary tract infection in 2007, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham had Barnes arrested and charged with homicide.

Three years later, a jury found Barnes not guilty on those charges, but he had remained in prison ever since because police found car keys and a cell phone on him when he was arrested at a Roxborough supermarket.

Those items constituted technical parole violations.   Barnes’ return to prison over the violations provoked a heated battle between attorneys for the commonwealth and Barnes in recent months. It reached the federal courthouse, where a magistrate judge declared Barnes “should be released immediately” last month.

That seemingly ended the drama on which his legal team from Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP logged an estimated 5,000 hours.

“I never doubted this outcome. I knew I was innocent,” said Barnes, who noted officers recognized him when he went to the Roundhouse to register on Monday morning, but did not feel any animosity. “I never took any of this personally. The cards fell where they did. I have no animosity against anybody.”

Harboring remorse

Delving deep into his past, Barnes portrayed himself as a juvenile delinquent “doing all the wrong things” and not getting the message that there was another path he could follow besides the one that led him into prison.

Barnes said he followed Barclay’s life from behind bars. His ability to get back to work on desk duty. His struggles of getting injured in car accidents and neglected by “so-called friends” who were supposed to take care of him but didn’t.

“I put him in the position of being in the wheelchair, but they should have done more for him,” Barnes said. “It’s very sad. Very sad. Over the next 41 years, things happened. He was getting along with life the best he could. I’d ask myself, maybe I’m responsible? If he hadn’t been shot, he might still be alive today. But, never once did I consider myself a murderer.”

Asked whether he ever reached out to Barclay or his family, Barnes said he “didn’t have the courage to face them. … Once again, I’m shameful about it.”

What does tomorrow hold?

As for the future, Barnes said he wants to give back to community as he did by telling his “scared straight’  story at Eastern State Penitentiary.

He can’t really see out of his left eye and uses a cane to get around much of the time. He also said he realizes his time is limited.

“At a certain point, you recognize your mortality. I have little time left. I’m going to try to live the best I can between now and then,” he said. “I’m not breaking any rules because I realize today how important that is. People are forgiving. If they see me out there trying to do right, they’re going to cheer me on.”

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