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

Of the five Barnes children, four met with success.

Brown-haired William, though, took an interest in women, and figured women liked nice things: cars, jewelry, clothes. Nice things lay beyond the reach of an Irish teenager in a poor neighborhood, so in 1955 William made the disastrous choice to pick up a gun.

The diner he robbed was empty, as was the gun, but when police nabbed him, none of that mattered. So at 19, Barnes found himself imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary, infamous home to criminals like Al Capone and Willie Sutton. He shuffled onto 14 Block, where penitentiary workers shaved his head, deloused him, and dressed him in stripes. After a battery of mental and physical tests, he settled into a prison cell, and thanks to a series of bad choices, he would hardly live anywhere else for the rest of his life.

In 1957 he saw his “first killing,” as he later described it in a recording made by the prison staff. “I think this was over a homosexual love affair,” he said. “I was sitting in the cell doorway.” An inmate named Charlie walked past him and into another man’s cell. After a moment he heard some sort of grunting sound from the cell. Then Charlie sprinted out and down the hall. Barnes stayed in his doorway, watching, listening, and a moment later a man staggered out of the cell in question, “holding his stomach, and blood was just gushing out of him.” The man turned and walked up the cell block, turning whiter with each door he passed. “And he died,” Barnes said.

The penitentiary is shaped like a wagon wheel, with cell-block spokes radiating from a hub occupied by prison staff. During the second week in January 1961, about a dozen inmates managed to seize the hub, and unleashed a riot that would live on in Philadelphia’s history. Barnes knew nothing of the coup until an inmate friend of his named Pete appeared at his cell door with a set of keys. “I was surprised,” Barnes said. “I was wondering why he was out. And he told me there was an escape attempt taking place and if I was interested I could join them.”

 Barnes wasn’t sure. He didn’t want to risk tacking years onto his sentence, but he did feel curious. “Well, open my door,” he told Pete, and then stepped out into the hallway. He lived on a two-tiered block, and could see the commotion unfolding below him. The original ringleaders of the breakout had realized that they couldn’t escape the prison’s high stone walls, and so to cover their identities had started releasing everyone in sight, and had thrown all the door locks down to the ground floor.

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  • Joe

    William Barnes committed a horiific crime but he DID NOT kill officer Barclay. The Phila. DA’s office is only trying to make a name for itself by having Mr. Barnes arrested for murder. I find it impossible for a bullet 41 years after the fact to be a cause of death when the officer was in numerous accidents andas denied benefits from the city and may have been ABUSED at the nursing home he was in at the time. That is who should be investigated not William Barnes. Tax payers you should be in an uproar over this. With God on William’s side hopefully he will be a free man this spring.

  • Helethan

    This is unbelievable

  • Helethan

    I hope this man is a free man this spring

  • Joe

    UNBELIVEABLE, i just read that 2 people were shot by Phila. police officers one unarmed the other an innocent bystander and died from their injuries. DA Lynn Abraham chose not to file charges against the officers but does in the case of Mr. Barnes. I guess if Mr. Barnes shot John Doe he wouldn’t have been charged. Shoot a cop who ends up dying 41 years later you get arrested a cop shoots a citizen within months of dying no charges. Lynn Abraham you were so WRONG for what you did to Mr. Barnes.

  • Diane

    Mr Barnes did not murder Mr Barclay, he went on to live for 41 more years. My Uncle should not be in prison as we speak. Lynn Abraham should be ashamed of herself wasting tax dollars money on a case that will not have a leg to stand on during trial. We, the Barnes family know that justice will prevail, but we will never get back the time that our Uncle spent in prison during his elder years. Lets just hope and pray that he lives for another 25 years!!

  • Jim

    You did a great job of impartial reporting on a difficult subject. Thank you.

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