Philly man, 75, relishing life outside of prison

March 5, 2012 - 7:25 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — William Barnes, who at 75 has spent most of his adult life behind bars, has many regrets yet said he hopes to do something positive with his newfound freedom.

"I'm at a point where I recognize my mortality. I don't have much more time on this earth, and I just want to live the best I can between now and then," Barnes said Monday in his first interview since being released from prison last week.

That means "community service, giving back, obeying the law, the rules, and making my future meaningful for the short time that I have left with my family and friends," he said.

Barnes was incarcerated since the August 2007 death of Officer Walter Barclay, whom he shot and paralyzed 41 years earlier during a botched burglary. Barnes had served 16 years for shooting Barclay, but was arrested and charged with murder after the officer died.

Despite a jury's acquittal of Barnes in May 2010, he remained incarcerated and was repeatedly denied parole. His attorneys appealed to a federal judge, who issued a scathing report calling Barnes' imprisonment "a shocking pattern of arbitrary and irrational expectations, requirements, and parole denials."

The next time the parole board interviewed him, which happened last week, the board recommended his release. He was freed Friday and is living in the Philadelphia area, but neither he nor his attorneys would say exactly where.

Barclay "had a miserable life that I contributed to," Barnes said. "I feel that I'm responsible for most of what happened to him in his lifetime; if he hadn't been shot he might still be alive."

Barnes said he never considered himself a murderer and always tried to stay optimistic that he'd be released eventually.

"Having said that, I also accept the responsibility of shooting Officer Barclay," he said. "It's the most shameful act I've ever done and I live with that, what it did to his family, what it did to mine, how it altered his life, and I'm deeply ashamed."

He fell in with the wrong crowd and started committing crimes as a juvenile, he said, despite having good parents and siblings who stayed out of trouble. He became emotional when recalling how his mother, after the Barclay shooting, was so humiliated that she never left the house during the day after that.

Barclay was a 23-year-old rookie investigating a report of a prowler when Barnes, then a 30-year-old petty criminal with a long record, shot him on Nov. 27, 1966. Paralyzed from the waist down, Barclay suffered from decades of infections, bedsores and other ailments before dying at age 64 of complications from a urinary tract infection.

"That was the first time I'd ever shot anybody, and the last," Barnes said.

Over the years, he read newspaper articles and followed Barclay's ups and downs — his brief return to the police force at a desk job, subsequent car accidents, his job at Amtrak, his move to Bucks County just outside Philadelphia. He considered writing an apology to Barclay's family after his death but said he "never had the courage to face them."

"It's sad," Barnes said. "I regret that I can't take it all back."

In charging Barnes with murder, prosecutors argued that his actions directly caused Barclay's death four decades later. A jury sided with Barnes' lawyers, who said Barclay suffered from falls, car accidents and caretaker abuse over the years that contributed to his demise.

Though he has spent more than four years in prison for a crime of which he was ultimately exonerated, he said he holds no anger and he believes that ultimately the criminal justice system worked.

Barnes spent much of his life in prison, largely for robbery, theft and escape, but was paroled in April 2007. When he was re-arrested after Barclay died four months later, Barnes was living in a halfway house and working at a supermarket. He also was lecturing at Temple University and Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum, where he once served time.

He hopes to resume giving talks and, though he now walks with a cane, would like to return to the supermarket job if they'll have him back. He also was, at the time of his arrest, trying to bring his talks to prison inmates and urge them not to make the same poor choices he did.

"There's truth to the motto that crime does not pay," Barnes said. "I'm just sorry that I did not learn that lesson as a younger man."