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

Back on the cell block, Barnes and his pals would split up and distribute the pills, then go play a marathon game of handball outside. The conspiracies and preparation were elaborate for not much more than a peppy game in the courtyard, but much of the thrill came in the plotting itself. The prisoners sometimes persuaded their friends outside the prison to empty the stuffing from a softball, pack it with pills, and knock it over the penitentiary’s tall wall, where it would land unnoticed in an ongoing inmate softball game. A prisoner would simply pick up the ball and pocket it.

Eventually, Barnes — now facing many years for shooting Barclay, plus numerous years backdated for prior crimes — applied himself to larger schemes. At one point, the state transferred him to a prison outside Pittsburgh that he didn’t like — he wanted to return home to Philadelphia, nearer his family. During the wet December of 1969, Barnes noticed that as trucks left the prison, the guard inspecting them would only bend down to glance underneath, rather than soil his uniform by kneeling in the mud. So one day Barnes sneaked under a truck, climbed into the space above its drive shaft, and held on tight. The truck pulled to the gate, the guard gave the bent glance, and Barnes escaped. “Ten minutes later the truck stops, I get out from under, and I’m downtown,” he said. He strolled through central Pittsburgh in his prison uniform until he saw a fireman park his car outside a firehouse and run inside to pick up his paycheck. Barnes stepped into the running car and took off — then hit traffic, a block away. In the rearview mirror he saw five firefighters barreling toward the car. Before he could get away, they grabbed him and dragged him to a police officer standing on the corner.

Barnes left another trail of wreckage, of the emotional sort. Somehow, during his few months of freedom before he shot Officer Barclay, he had found a woman willing to overlook his past. And they shared something that lasted longer than Barnes’s liberty.

She named him Michael.

Young Officer Barclay fought to regain his feet, and for a while he made progress.

Within about nine months of the shoot-out, he had learned to walk short stretches with leg braces. He moved into a ground-floor apartment and took a job working as a dispatcher for the police department. He met and dated a young woman, Peggy, and eventually proposed. They married. Friends outfitted his car with special hand controls so he could drive, and that opened up the world.
“We would go to the drive-in movies. That was exciting,” his stepdaughter, Peggy Anne Keene, said recently. But on one icy day, Barclay’s car slid off the road, and he reinjured his spine. The police department placed him on permanent disability. His health began a slow downward drift.