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

Barnes kept a grip on his door lock, then retreated to his cell. The next day, police arrived at the cell door. “I swear I had no part in this,” he said. But an officer told him, “Out, let’s go.” They stripped him, delivered a couple of blows to his head, and led him to a hold where four or five other inmates were all handcuffed together. “So I was in the hole for like 10 days, freezing my ass off, and we’d be huddling, you know you make friends fast when you’re exposed to the cold weather,” Barnes said. “And we’d hug and everything to keep warm, and take turns sleeping while other guys covered their bodies with our own.”

And so Barnes spent his youth. The state released him in 1966, and at age 30, he moved in for a while with his parents. His little brother, Jimmy, had been four years old the first time Barnes went to jail. Jimmy had never known his older brother as a free man; in school, when the children practiced writing letters, Jimmy sent his to William in prison. He had visited several times.

Now Jimmy had just turned 12, and watched his older sibling’s every move. After all those years of rough treatment at the penitentiary and elsewhere, maybe William Barnes had finally gone straight. Or maybe he had hardened into something altogether crooked.

One night a few months after Barnes’s return from prison — just after midnight on November 27th — the family sat watching the night’s final television programs, and Jimmy noticed his brother head out the door. He’d been drinking.

In the early hours of November 27, 1966, police officer Walter Barclay patrolled East Oak Lane with his partner, Robert Piatek.

Barclay was 23 years old, with lacquered hair and wide-open eyes. That particular November was a strange month for a rookie cop in Philadelphia. The city — the world, really — seemed to be moving toward something imminent, converging somehow. A Philadelphia band called the Magic Mushrooms had a song called “It’s a Happening” on the Billboard chart. Barclay’s peers tumbled toward Vietnam as America ramped up troop numbers there. Meanwhile, Philadelphia police inspector Harry Fox had just published an influential paper in a police journal that described how officers should penetrate protest groups to find out how “organizations are infiltrated, influenced or directed by hard-core communists and their sympathetic followers.”

The world stirred, but Barclay’s future seemed set. His father, William Barclay, had served as a police officer. Furthermore, the elder Barclay had been injured while chasing car thieves in Kensington many years before; there’s an extra measure of respect in the police community for officers hurt on the job, so the father’s footsteps seemed cast in concrete, waiting for the son to walk in them.