Federal judge recommends William Barnes ‘be released from custody immediately’

A U.S. Magistrate Judge has recommended that the state Board of Probation and Parole immediately release Bill Barnes, a 76-year-old man who remains imprisoned on technical parole violations a year and a half after being cleared of killing a Philadelphia police officer.

“If due process means anything, it means that the state may not punish an individual for conduct of which he has been acquitted,” wrote U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy R. Rice in a 35-page report and recommendation released Tuesday afternoon (PDF). “Immediate release is the only remedy that will fully redress the constitutional violation at hand and ensure Barnes is subjected to no further arbitrariness or vindictiveness.”

At a Jan. 31 hearing on the matter, Barnes’s attorneys argued that after a jury found Barnes not guilty of killing police Officer Walter Barclay — who died 41 years after Barnes shot him during a robbery attempt — assistant District Attorney Ed Cameron urged the Parole Board to keep Barnes, who was known as the “East Germantown Cowboy” back in the day, behind bars until he dies.

Rice concluded that subsequent parole denials “rose to the level of a substantive due process violation.”

“I’m speechless,” said Barnes’s brother Jimmy upon hearing the news. “Could it be that he’s just days away from freedom? We were resigned to the fact that the Parole Board would never let him out.”

Rice’s decision now goes to District Judge James Knoll Gardner, but the Commonwealth can appeal it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have two weeks to file objections.

“We’re thrilled. I’m optimistic and hopeful that the board will take it very seriously and accept Magistrate Judge Rice’s recommendation,” said Barnes attorney Sam Silver. If the Commonwealth does not object, Barnes could be freed “very soon.”

Leo Dunn, assistant director at the state Board of Probation and Parole, said “we have no comment at this point.”

A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Tuesday afternoon, but FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby said, “This is a problem with society today, judges letting people out, revolving-door justice. [If released], it won’t be long before he commits another crime.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.