LOCKPORT – William J. Barnes Jr., the Lockport man who killed his girlfriend and her lover in 1986, will be granted a hearing on his latest effort to overturn the verdict – even though the judge thinks he doesn’t have much of a case.
Barnes, 50, is serving a sentence of 50 years to life in Wende Correctional Facility, Alden.
Counting failed appeals of his rejected motions, this will be his ninth attempt to reverse his conviction on two counts of second-degree murder, voted by a Niagara County Court jury in January 1987.
This time, Barnes is using a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision to try to convince Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas to overturn his conviction.
The high court ruled last year in a Missouri case that a conviction must be overturned if a defendant’s lawyer doesn’t tell him of a pretrial plea offer that the defendant and the judge would have accepted.
Barnes insists that his attorneys from the county public defender’s office, Joseph L. Leone Jr. and the late Robert A. Rotundo, never told him of a plea offer for a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Barnes went to trial, was convicted of two counts of murder, and was sentenced by then-County Judge Aldo L. DiFlorio to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life.
In an order earlier this month, Farkas directed that an attorney be appointed to represent Barnes and that a hearing should be held on the issue of what Leone did or didn’t tell Barnes 26½ years ago.
Farkas wrote that Barnes’ claims are “unsupported by the evidence” and normally, she wouldn’t grant a hearing.
“However, out of an abundance of caution, due to the holding in Missouri v. Frye, and because there has been no further decision illuminating this court’s responsibilities with regard to the defendant’s allegation, this court will grant a hearing exclusively on this issue,” Farkas wrote.
The hearing is to be held Feb. 11, with Dominic Saraceno of the county conflict defender’s office representing Barnes.
Court minutes confirm a plea deal, including a sentence of 25 years to life, was offered by then-First Assistant District Attorney Stephen A. Shierling in an Aug. 11, 1986, pretrial conference. No stenographer was present, and apparently Barnes wasn’t, either.
Barnes wrote in a letter to Leone on Sept. 4, 1986, “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?”
Leone has previously testified that he told Barnes of the offer and advised him to take it, but Barnes turned it down. Leone made the same statement in an interview with The Buffalo News last fall.
But Barnes asserts that at a Sept. 11, 1986, court appearance, Leone told him there was no plea offer.
Barnes admits he killed his live-in girlfriend, Irene L. Bucher, 21, formerly of Pendleton, and William R. Moffitt, 35, of Somerset.
Both were shot twice with a pump-action 12-gauge shotgun, about 9 p.m. Jan. 7, 1986, when Barnes caught them having sex on the floor in front of the couch in Barnes’ apartment at 503 Park Ave., Lockport.
Barnes, who said he had been drinking heavily that day, claimed that he and Moffitt struggled over the shotgun, which accidentally discharged, striking Bucher. He said he then shot Moffitt twice in a fit of rage before shooting Bucher again.
But the girlfriend of Barnes’ brother testified that Barnes told her that he shot Moffitt, then shot Bucher twice, then shot Moffitt again. However, the sequence of events will not be at issue in the Feb. 11 hearing.
If Barnes had taken the plea offer he says Leone concealed from him, he would have been eligible for a parole hearing in 2010. As things now stand, he isn’t eligible for a hearing until 2035, when he will be 73.
“I have a death sentence. I’m going to die in prison,” Barnes told The News on Nov. 12.
Barnes appealed his conviction, which was upheld by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in 1991. The Court of Appeals refused to take the case.
In 1997, Barnes handed in a motion to overturn the verdict, which was turned down twice, in 2000 and 2001, by Acting County Judge Robert C. Noonan. His motion for a “writ of error” was rejected by the Appellate Division in 2002, and in 2003, the Court of Appeals again refused to hear the matter.
In 2007, Barnes filed another motion with Farkas, seeking a new trial, and was turned down in 2008. He then tried a motion for resentencing, which Farkas rejected in 2009.