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 in prison and watching his son slip away, Barnes ramped up his efforts to escape. Throughout his career, so to speak, he made an astonishing dozen escape attempts, with varying success. He made the cinematic bedsheet-rope, dug a hole in his cell wall, sawed his cell bars, stole a guard’s uniform. He once made a shank, a set of handcuff keys, and a gun-like contraption that wouldn’t shoot anything but looked impressive; he managed to sneak them into his pockets one day when he and a fellow inmate were due to appear at a courthouse in Pittsburgh. On their way, the partner pulled the fake gun on the sheriff’s deputy in the passenger’s seat, and Barnes pulled the shank on the driver. But the driver threw his hand up in defense, and impaled it on the blade. In the resulting chaos, the patrol car smashed into the car in front of them, but the bleeding driver bashed his way to their destination. “Took us in to the sheriff’s department and kicked our ass for like an hour,” Barnes said. At the courthouse, the judge tacked on several more years to his sentence for the stunt.

One day, Michael visited Barnes in prison once again. The boy had become a 35-year-old man. He used his mother’s married name — Friel — and not Barnes’s. He had children of his own, now, and their existence made him curious about what lay up the family’s genetic stream. He sat across a table from the older man and searched for some sliver of common ground. They both liked music from their respective generations, and in the awkward manner of two men bound together but unacquainted, they used lyrics to express themselves. Barnes quoted Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle,” about an absent father’s repentance:

My child arrived just the other day,
He came to the world in the usual way.

Michael said, “Yeah, well, I know a song too,” and cited words by Everclear:

“Father of mine,
Tell me where did you go?”

“I’m never going to call you Dad, because you’re not,” Michael said. “You’re just a guy who helped my mother create me.”

Barnes agreed.

Michael braced himself. “But I am a Christian,” he said, “and I do believe in forgiveness.” And he walked out.

In 2005, Jimmy Barnes received a surprise call from his older brother. “They’re letting me out,” he said.

Jimmy stood holding the phone. He felt dazed. “What?” he said. “They what?”

Jimmy picked Barnes up outside the prison, a quarter-century after his last free breath. The old convict marveled at Jimmy’s car, a new four-wheel-drive. “Amazing,” he said. They drove to Burger King, where Jimmy paid. The kid behind the counter handed Barnes a cup, and he stood for a long time, just holding it. The kid went about his business. Finally Barnes leaned across the counter and asked, “What do I do with this?” The last time he’d been in a fast-food restaurant, drinks weren’t self-service.