William Barnes Profile: This Man Shot a Cop

In a case that may change how we think of justice, the D.A. wants him to go to jail for it. Again

Of the five Barnes children, four met with success.

Brown-haired William, though, took an interest in women, and figured women liked nice things: cars, jewelry, clothes. Nice things lay beyond the reach of an Irish teenager in a poor neighborhood, so in 1955 William made the disastrous choice to pick up a gun.

The diner he robbed was empty, as was the gun, but when police nabbed him, none of that mattered. So at 19, Barnes found himself imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, infamous home to criminals like Al Capone and Willie Sutton. He shuffled onto 14 Block, where penitentiary workers shaved his head, deloused him, and dressed him in stripes. After a battery of mental and physical tests, he settled into a prison cell, and thanks to a series of bad choices, he would hardly live anywhere else for the rest of his life.

In 1957 he saw his “first killing,” as he later described it in a recording made by the prison staff. “I think this was over a homosexual love affair,” he said. “I was sitting in the cell doorway.” An inmate named Charlie walked past him and into another man’s cell. After a moment he heard some sort of grunting sound from the cell. Then Charlie sprinted out and down the hall. Barnes stayed in his doorway, watching, listening, and a moment later a man staggered out of the cell in question, “holding his stomach, and blood was just gushing out of him.” The man turned and walked up the cell block, turning whiter with each door he passed. “And he died,” Barnes said.

The penitentiary is shaped like a wagon wheel, with cell-block spokes radiating from a hub occupied by prison staff. During the second week in January 1961, about a dozen inmates managed to seize the hub, and unleashed a riot that would live on in Philadelphia’s history. Barnes knew nothing of the coup until an inmate friend of his named Pete appeared at his cell door with a set of keys. “I was surprised,” Barnes said. “I was wondering why he was out. And he told me there was an escape attempt taking place and if I was interested I could join them.”

 Barnes wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to risk tacking years onto his sentence, but he did feel curious. “Well, open my door,” he told Pete, and then stepped out into the hallway. He lived on a two-tiered block, and could see the commotion unfolding below him. The original ringleaders of the breakout had realized that they couldn’t escape the prison’s high stone walls, and so to cover their identities had started releasing everyone in sight, and had thrown all the door locks down to the ground floor.