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

On the other hand, Campbell knew Barclay’s paralysis had brought him a host of medical challenges, including the long-term use of a urinary catheter and the attendant risk of infection. So he made his ruling: homicide.

William Barnes’s younger brother Jimmy remembers hearing word of the ruling. “He never made excuses for his actions when he was a young man,” Jimmy said. “But this seemed like someone was lying in wait, all these years later.”

 After Campbell made his call, Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham faced a decision of her own: Should she charge William Barnes with murder, or let it go? Was he a killer? Or just an old, frail man? The answer depended on her view of justice. Judicial philosophy divides the many types of punishment into two basic camps, both of which are legitimate: the consequential, and the retributive.

The consequential camp holds that punishment is meant to deter criminals, and to incapacitate the dangerous. There’s little call for this sort of punishment in Barnes’s case because, as a Penn professor of criminology said recently, “Crime is a young man’s game.”

The second view, retributive, seeks satisfaction for the aggrieved. Shortly after Barclay’s death, his sister, Rosalyn Harrison, said of Barnes to the Bucks County Courier Times, “I am bitter toward him; I can’t get rid of that. … My brother died from that gunshot wound. Every problem he had, they were all related to his paralysis from being shot.”

Of course, the Barnes family takes another view. “My brother served 20 years for shooting Mr. Barclay, as he should have,” Jimmy Barnes said. “But he paid that debt to society. He didn’t go on to live some easy life with a wife and house. He lived a horrible existence.”

In this case, there was an additional political element. “We wouldn’t be having this discussion if there hadn’t been a cop involved,” said Allen Hornblum, a former Temple professor who helped Barnes convey his message to students. “Lynne Abraham wouldn’t be prosecuting Joe Blow from 21st and Pine.” (Abraham’s office declined to discuss the case for this story.)

A couple of weeks after Barclay’s death, Abraham called a press conference and announced her decision for the retributive: She would bring charges against Barnes. “When you set in motion a chain of events, a perpetrator of a crime is responsible for every single thing that flows from that chain of events,” Abraham said at the press conference in September. “As long as we can prove the chain is unbroken.”

Barnes found himself back in prison.