A 71-year-old was charged with murder earlier this month.
But William Barnes hasn’t fired the gun that Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham is labeling a murder weapon since Nov. 27, 1966.
Drunk and disorderly, Barnes fired two shots at police officer Walter Barclay after breaking into an East Oak Lane beauty shop 41 years ago.
The boyish rookie cop never walked again.
It wasn’t until last month that Barclay died, succumbing to an infection at St. Mary Medical Center in Bucks County. The county medical examiner labeled Barclay’s death a homicide and the attention spread.
Not long after Barnes was taken into custody, away from the halfway house in which he was living and the grocery job at which he was working, Abraham told reporters that “a perpetrator of a crime is responsible for every single thing that flows from that chain of events.”
Murder charges can be filed after a victim’s death, even if the alleged perpetrator has been previously convicted
of lesser charges, according to Pennsylvania law. So, though Barnes served a full 20-year sentence for attempted murder – after violating his parole – he is back in prison and awaiting trial.
A prison photo of Barnes that has circulated among media outlets suggests a grandfather with prominent cheek bones and wispy white hair. He has survived two heart attacks and, since the 1990s, has pledged reform.
“I turned my life around for the better,” Barnes wrote in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Allen Hornblum, an assistant professor at Temple and author on criminal justice issues, told the Inquirer that the charges had little chance of finding courtroom success, and good thing. Imprisoning a senior citizen for a crime for which he has already been punished only shows how far the American criminal justice system often drifts from its purpose.
A Barnes conviction could only be fueled by vengeance, not rehabilitation.
His past is an ugly one. Stories of his youth suggest a criminal hardened before his teens, shoplifting and grand theft and more. Since 1951, his first lockup, Barnes spent 48 of the next 56 years in prison.
But justice should never be regressive.
Barclay’s brother, who now lives in California, seems to disagree.
“Unlike Barnes, my brother had a positive effect on his community,” he told the Inquirer last week. “It was murder delayed.”
It is fair to assume that Abraham is pursuing Barnes because of these passions, because a cop was shot and, eventually, killed. Barnes has wasted nearly 50 years in prison. An arthritic senior with a cane isn’t worth the public money that will be used to pursue a case that won’t be won or even the prison costs if it is.