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

“I felt bittersweet about it,” Jimmy remembers. “He’d missed so much.”

Michael received the remarkable news of his father’s release, but for a long time refused to meet him, or introduce him to his grandchildren. He remembered the sound of police boots on the door too well, and the emptiness of Father’s Day. But months passed, and then a year, and finally Michael arranged to meet the old man at a nearby park. A question loomed over their meeting: Had his father really changed? After a lifetime of rigid criminality — the repeated robberies, the endless escapes — the old man seemed more likely to transform himself outwardly into some mythical creature than to transform his own heart.

Just before their meeting, the son felt a surge of emotion that caught him off guard: fear. Never mind that he weighed 250 pounds and worked in security for the Philadelphia Flyers. While his father had been in prison, “You can say whatever you want, and what’s the worst that can happen?” he said. “But out in the real world, well. You don’t know.”

At a local park, the two watched Barnes’s grandchildren — ages six, eight and 17 — play on the swings. “So, what the hell happened that day?” Michael said. “All I want is the truth.”

Barnes gave it to him. “I was doing a robbery,” he said. “I wish I’d never, ever done it. I am so remorseful, Mike.” He had started giving talks to young people at Temple University about how he had wasted his life. And his little speeches at Eastern State Penitentiary, which now operates as a museum, touched people. They were drawn to his “unvarnished account,” according to Sean Kelley, who runs the penitentiary today.

The grandchildren shyly called Barnes “Pop-Pop.” The son offered an ultimatum. “If you bring trouble to my house,” he said, “you will never see us again.”

Barnes swore it aloud: He would never return to that life.

The more sick Walter Barclay became, the further he withdrew from his loved ones. He didn’t want anyone to see him so frail and atrophied. So defeated.

He suffered huge weeping bedsores. Pneumonia clung like cobwebs in his lungs. The simple chores that most people use to construct their lives — grocery errands, doctor visits — receded into the distance. He struggled to subsist on his disability money, and took on boarders at his house. But they robbed him of everything, literally emptying his home of furniture while he lay helpless in his bedroom.
On August 19th, 2007, the 64-year-old’s heart finally succumbed, due to a urinary tract infection. The Bucks County coroner, Joseph Campbell, faced a decision: Should he rule Barclay’s death natural, or a homicide? Several factors complicated his decision. There were Barclay’s other medical hazards, for instance, from car crashes to a long-term smoking habit. And no one, so far, had located Barclay’s medical records for the decade following the shooting. (The coroner’s office did not answer requests to discuss this story.)