Dear Seth Williams: Put Our Money Where Your Mouth Is

D.A. wants to be smart on crime, but the case of William Barnes is anything but.

By Randy LoBasso
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 4 | Posted Jun. 8, 2010

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William Barnes

The road to reducing the city’s crime rate is paved with hypocrisy. To see why, you need not look much further than the case of William Barnes.

By now you’ve probably heard of Barnes, who was recently acquitted in the 2007 death of Officer Walter Barclay. Barnes shot Barclay—then a 23-year-old rookie cop—twice during an East Oak Lane robbery in November 1966. One of the bullets lodged near Barclay’s heart and remained there throughout his life.

Barnes, now 74, served 16 of his 20 sentenced years for the shooting, and 10 more for escape attempts and other crimes. He was eventually released on bail and found work at the Ridge Avenue Shop Rite in Roxborough. He also gave lectures at Temple University and Eastern State Penitentiary.

He had been free just a few months when Barclay died, at which time he was re-arrested. The trial lasted a week and it was concluded that the link between Barnes’ bullet and Barclay’s death wasn’t strong enough to convict Barnes of murder.

What does this have to do with the city’s efforts to get smart on crime?


District Attorney Seth Williams has advocated lowering prison costs by finding ways to cut the pretrial rate, which currently makes up 57 percent of the daily jail population. He has also acknowledged that the city needs to ease its parole-violation standards (18 percent of the city’s jailed) and, as seen in the easing of marijuana-offense laws, eliminate drawn-out trials for nonviolent offenders.

And Barnes’ case is an example of at least two of these: He was kept in jail for almost three years before entering his not-guilty plea on May 17. And at the time of his re-arrest, he was found with keys and a cell phone, both of which were reported as parole violations.

Williams is anything but empathetic.

We’re not here to paint the former career criminal as an angel—in Barnes’ hayday, he was surely anything but. However, the case for his re-arrest has always been weak, and a jury said so after a mere week of trial and six hours of deliberation, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer and other sources on the scene.

Barnes was jailed Aug. 21, 2007. His incarceration throughout this time, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Philadelphia Research Initiative’s estimates, cost the taxpayers of Philadelphia $7,013 (Pew estimates it costs about $20 to jail someone for the first day and $7 each day thereafter, which includes food, medicine, labwork and clothing. However, the total cost of the system divided by the number of inmate days brings that number closer to $95 per day, when jail maintenance, security, pension and other costs are factored in. In this latter estimate, the cost of keeping Barnes and others like him in jail pretrial has cost taxpayers about $95,000 each during this time).

At that, Barnes may still be in jail until 2030 (see also: life) for the parole violation of having keys and a cell phone on his person at the time of his re-arrest. While that may seem a little harsh, what’s worse is that having keys and a cell phone aren’t necessarily parole violations. It was the lack of permission from his parole officer to have these items that resulted in the violation. As of now, he won’t even be able to see a parole board until 2013, costing the taxpayers $6,789 individually and $91,960 including all costs. This, mind you, is assuming his meeting takes place Jan. 1, 2013—which it won’t.

As for the final point, wasn’t Barnes, at the time of his re-arrest, considered a nonviolent offender? We can’t see any plausible situation in which this senior citizen, motivational speaker and grocery bagger was a threat to society. In fact, his continued incarceration may have stemmed from his decision to go to trial rather than make a deal with the D.A.’s Office.

“We feel Bill is being punished,” says attorney Sam Silver, who defended Barnes in the murder trial, “for exercising his constitutional rights. If he had accepted a plea of third-degree murder, and said, ‘I’m a murderer,’ then the District Attorney’s Office wouldn’t have taken a position as to his parole. But because he dared say, ‘I want to be tried. I want to have a jury determine whether I’m going to be condemned as a murderer,’ and because he was fully exonerated by that jury, he’s paying the price.”

The D.A.’s Office and Assistant District Attorney Edward Cameron, who prosecuted the case, did not return calls for comment.

In a statement released upon the verdict, Williams said: “William Barnes may not have been convicted of murder but it doesn’t take away from what he did. Barnes killed a police officer who was just beginning his courageous service for the city of Philadelphia. While it took over 40 years for that death to happen, it doesn’t make it any less sad or senseless.”

Asked by Fox 29 about the jury finding Barnes not guilty, Williams told anchors Sheinelle Jones and Mike Jerrick the jury “got it wrong”—though he respects their verdict.

Williams doesn’t seem to be budging on his Abrahamic stance, which means Barnes will likely die in jail. We’ve got to wonder if further efforts to make progressive change in Philadelphia’s legal system will be muddied by the same likely hypocrisy that took place here.

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Comments 1 - 4 of 4
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1. Mblue said... on Jun 9, 2010 at 06:00AM

“Let's ask the families of those murdered if they think that it costs too much to keep the murderer in jail. I would work for free for the rest of my life just to keep my aunt's killer behind bars. He should be buried in a pit until she rises to free him, not be given cable, a comfy bed, and a free college education!”

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2. asho said... on Jun 9, 2010 at 03:48PM

“In response to the previous comment posted, I would absolutely agree with you, if in fact he murdered this police officer. Your words seem to be extremely harsh but discount the fact that Mr. Barnes was NOT found guilty of murder!”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jun 10, 2010 at 12:35PM

“This is a really hard issue. I think though, that if someone commits a
crime and is punished, even though these people are the lowest form
of life, to be rearrested years later as in this case doesn't seem to
be good for anyone.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Jun 10, 2010 at 01:09PM

“he died from a urinary tract infection, were was his family ,the ? should be how they let him so ill to die, the man served his time,to put him back in jail served no purpose, except to lynn abrams, the former da,who makes bad cops gods, you cant fire them, they can kill with out fear of losing a job, the can fake a shooting ,resign and keep their pensions, i know a lot of cops, u people keep the praising them the day will comewhen they shoot one of your loved ones,and nothing will happen to them”


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