William J. Barnes Jr., who killed his girlfriend and her lover more than a quarter of a century ago, still is trying to overturn the results of the trial in which he was convicted of two counts of murder.
Sometime in the new year, Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas is expected to preside over a hearing on the issue of whether Barnes’ attorneys withheld word of a plea offer that Barnes says he would have taken. Had he done so, he might have been paroled by now.
But Joseph L. Leone Jr., the only member of the defense team still living, says Barnes was told of the plea offer and turned it down.
The only question in the hearing will be whether Leone’s assertion is true, or whether Barnes is telling the truth about the offer, which would have brought him a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March that under certain circumstances, a defendant who can prove that a plea bargain was concealed from him, that he would have taken it and the court would have accepted it, can have his conviction overturned.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas H. Brandt said the Supreme Court’s ruling denied it would open the door for frivolous appeals, but this is the third in Niagara County since the decision came down.
“This the latest argument du jour for defendants convicted of murder,” Brandt said.
Barnes has tried to win a new trial four times before. He has never denied that he killed the victims, but he claims to this day he doesn’t clearly remember all the details of those fatal moments at about 9 p.m. Jan. 7, 1986, in his apartment at 503 Park Ave., Lockport.
Barnes went to trial in January 1987, a year after he shot Irene L. Bucher, 21, formerly of Pendleton, and William R. Moffitt, 35, of Somerset, with a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun. Both victims were shot twice after Barnes caught them having sex on the floor in front of his living room couch.
The double homicide climaxed a toxic relationship between Barnes and Bucher, who were living together at the time of the homicides. Barnes says he was in love with Bucher and wanted to marry her, but he said Bucher kept sleeping with other men and telling Barnes about it.
Why didn’t he just break up with her?
“I’ve had 27 years to think about that,” Barnes, now 50, said during a three-hour interview last week in Wende Correctional Facility in Alden. “She’d turn right around and say, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ People always say I’m a very naive person, and I guess I still am to a certain degree. … I was looking for someone to love me, I guess you could say.”
He attributes this search for love to a harsh upbringing. Barnes said his father, the late William Barnes Sr., was an alcoholic who beat his wife and abused his children physically, emotionally and sexually.
Barnes’ brother Douglas had already committed suicide by means of a drug overdose before the killings occurred. His brother Michael, who testified at the trial, died of an overdose in 1996. And a half brother, Bill Sewar, died in a fall from a Lockport railroad trestle a year or two before the killings.
Half an hour before the killings, Barnes went to the apartment and found the door locked, but he heard noises inside. He also had noticed that a car he didn’t recognize was parked in his parking space.
Barnes shouted for Bucher, and she refused to let him in, so Barnes broke the door open and found Bucher and Moffitt on the couch straightening their clothing.
According to an account Barnes’ mother, Louise, got from her son and related to a Niagara County grand jury, an argument ensued, during which Barnes supposedly said to Irene, “Could you at least take your hand off his leg while I’m talking to you?”
“They both laughed and she moved her hand up higher,” Louise Barnes testified.
William Barnes, who had been drinking since that morning, left and headed for the Pot O’ Gold bar on West Genesee Street, where his friend and frequent drinking companion, Jeff White, was tending bar. Barnes said he wanted White to join him in going back to the apartment to evict the man who was with Irene, but White was unable to leave because there was no other bartender available.
Barnes went to his parents’ home, where he retrieved his old deer-hunting shotgun from a closet. Police later said they found a box of shotgun shells and the shotgun in Barnes’ car after his arrest that night. They also found the word “Irene” stencilled on the passenger-side door.
The highly intoxicated Barnes drove back to Park Avenue, where he ended two lives and ruined his own.
“I wish I’d been pulled over for DWI,” he said last week.
Drunkenness was nothing new for Barnes, who said he started drinking when he was 12. He left Lockport High School in 10th grade – “There was an option, quit or be expelled,” he told prosecution psychiatrist Dr. Michael Lynch – as he was usually absent because he was drinking and otherwise misbehaving.
After being granted youthful offender status on a vehicle and traffic conviction in 1979, Barnes moved to Florida. He didn’t stay long, as he was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old girl in a parked school bus.
Barnes was allowed to plead guilty to trespassing on the condition that he leave Florida for a year. Authorities took him to the Fort Myers airport and put him on a plane to Buffalo.
Back in Lockport, Barnes was arrested in the fall of 1982 for driving drunk in a friend’s car he had taken without permission. He pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated and was sentenced to six months in jail.
Barnes worked as an auto mechanic at several different Lockport shops. On Jan. 9, 1986, he was scheduled to take a test at Niagara County Community College, hoping to be admitted to a criminal-justice program. He said he went to the apartment at about 8:30 p.m. Jan. 8, planning to grab some paperwork he would need the next day at NCCC.
Barnes said last week that upon his return at about 9 p.m., he saw the apartment was dark, but the stranger’s car was still parked outside. Letting himself into the darkened flat, by the light coming in from the hallway, he saw Moffitt atop Bucher on the living room floor.
He said it took a few moments before Bucher noticed the light and saw Barnes standing there, shotgun in hand. She and Moffitt stopped what they were doing and scrambled to get dressed.
At this point, the story becomes a bit muddled.
Tammy Potts, the girlfriend of Barnes’ brother Michael, testified at the trial that Barnes came to her apartment on Saxton Street right after the shooting, still holding the shotgun, and told her that he shot Moffitt first, then shot Bucker twice, then shot Moffitt again. Barnes said last week that Potts “concocted” that story.
Questioning Barnes after his arrest shortly after midnight in the Best Western Lockport Inn, police said the suspect was “vague and evasive.”
But he phoned home at least twice that night before being captured. In fact, he was on the phone in the hotel lobby talking to Louise, his mother, when police surrounded the building, after spotting his car outside.
Louise Barnes told police, “He told me Irene had pushed him too far. … He told me that the guy Irene was laying on the floor with stood up and told William to get out of the house or he would throw him out and have him arrested. William then told me that he shot the both of them.”
William Barnes Sr. told the grand jury that in a jailhouse visit several days later, his son told him that Moffitt said, “Now you are going to jail for this.”
“[Moffitt] got up, grabbed for the rifle and pushed it aside and it went off, and [William] does not remember anything after that,” the elder Barnes testified.
“I don’t think I was doing anything wrong [by going in with a gun],” Barnes said last week, noting it was his home.
Barnes had long claimed that the shotgun went off accidentally during the struggle and the round struck Irene. In last week’s interview, he said Moffitt pushed him backwards and the gun discharged when Barnes bumped into the wall.
He said he wasn’t sure, but he thought he then fired three times at Moffitt, but one of the shots struck Irene.
“I have no memory of shooting him. It’s like somebody fast-forwarded the tape five seconds and I was there holding the gun,” Barnes said.
Autopsies showed both victims were shot twice. Moffitt was hit in the left lower chest and the right lower chest, while Bucher was shot in the left upper chest and the left lower abdomen.
Whatever happened, Barnes seems to have realized that his version of an accidental shooting, followed by something approaching blind rage, wasn’t going to be believable.
On the night of the crime, “I said, 'Michael, the police are never going to believe me,’” Barnes recalled. “I never wanted this to happen, I just wanted this guy to leave. I told my brother I was just going to end it, I was going to kill myself.”
Two days after the killings he tried to hang himself in the Niagara County Jail, and was cut down by two deputies.
There is no question about the existence of the plea offer. The official court minutes say that on Aug, 11, 1986, a pretrial conference was held before County Judge Aldo DiFlorio, although there was no stenographer present. The minutes don’t say whether Barnes was there; he says he was not.
“Those [Supreme Court] cases do not say the defendant has to be present for a plea offer,” Brandt said. “They say he has to be advised of a plea offer.”
Then-First Assistant District Attorney Stephen A. Shierling allegedly offered Leone and his colleague, the late Robert A. Rotundo, a plea deal of one count of second-degree murder and one count of manslaughter with a recommendation for concurrent sentencing, resulting in a term of 25 years to life in prison for Barnes. If that had happened, he would have been eligible for a parole hearing in 2010.
The defense attorneys made a counteroffer of 20 years on the murder and five to 15 years on the manslaughter, with the sentences to run consecutively. It would have meant the certainty that Barnes would be released someday, but Judge DiFlorio vetoed that. He said he would consider the prosecution’s sentencing suggestion, however.
Leone said in an interview, “Basically, he was offered a plea of 25 to life. I suggested to my client that he accept that plea offer. He rejected it.”
Barnes says Leone never told him of the offer. and he obtained an affidavit from his mother, who said her son never told her of a plea offer during any of their jail visits before the trial in January 1987.
On Sept. 4, 1986, Barnes wrote a letter to Leone, which was received at the Public Defender’s Office four days later, according to a date stamp on the document.
“I am very worried about going to trial,” Barnes wrote. “How can we prove that I only got my gun because I was scared and only wanted Moffitt to leave? How can we prove the gun went off accidentally because of him? … Can you tell the judge and DA that I’m willing to cop out to manslaughter – and if they won’t go for that, tell them I’ll take anything as long as it is not more than 25 to life, OK?”
Even though that is precisely the plea offer that Shierling made – the one Leone says Barnes rejected – Barnes said it’s just a coincidence. He claimed that at a Sept. 11, 1986, pretrial hearing, Leone told him there was no plea offer.
“I never try to force a client one way or another. It’s his life and his choice,” Leone said. “I remember William Barnes was a very young man. We tried to get a better plea. We wanted a manslaughter plea, but the DA’s office just wouldn’t budge on it.”
“I think I have more proof than he does. He has a vested interest in not admitting his ineffectiveness,” Barnes said.
After a five-day trial and 2 1/2 hours of deliberation, the jury found Barnes guilty of two counts of second-degree murder. DiFlorio sentenced him to 50 years to life: two 25-to-life terms, consecutively.
In 2001, attorney Mark J. Mahoney presented a motion to set aside Barnes’ conviction on the grounds that Leone and Rotundo were ineffective, but the motion was rejected.
Barnes isn’t eligible for a parole hearing until 2035, when he will be 73.
“I have a death sentence. I’m going to die in prison,” Barnes said. He said he’s been having heart trouble for the past five years.
Barnes said he has tried to be a good inmate. Housed at Wende since 1995, his cell is in the “honor block” for the most trusted inmates, and he submitted notes from three correction officers who wrote that they think he’s unlikely to reoffend.
He says he found God behind bars, was baptized by a clergyman and even got married in 1993 to a “good Christian woman” who met him through a personal ad in the Ithaca newspaper when Barnes was at Auburn Correctional Facility. She died of cancer in 1998, but Barnes still wears his wedding ring.
“All I want is for justice to be done,” Barnes said.
Some might say that already happened, such as Farkas, who wrote in 2008, “One shot may be an accidental discharge. Two shots to each chest is an intentional act. Shooting one person may be in self-defense. Shooting both is murder.”