Steve Barnes fell between the cracks of court room justice when he was tried and convicted for a crime he did not commit.
On Sept 18, 1985, Kimberly Simon was found dead on the left side of a dirt road in Utica, New York. Three days later, Barnes, then 19, was called in for interrogation.
After ten hours of cross examination, the investigating authorities subjected him to a polygraph test; later instructing Barnes to lie in order to test the machine, officers interpreted the tests and used the results against him in the original case.
The dirt on Barnes’ mud flaps showed similarities to the same dirt at the crime scene. But when the original jury was presented with this evidence, the case was dismissed: everyone within the area had similar dirt under their tires as well and with an inconclusive polygraph test, Barnes was free to go. So it seemed.
Three and a half years went by between the investigation and the sentencing; three and a half years in which Barnes was followed. Friends were questioned. His girlfriend was interrogated. Six months in, he was asked for a blood sample in order to test some DNA. Two and a half more years went by. It was then, March of 1988, that Barnes was arrested for rape, sodomy and murder.
“When you’re in trouble, you don’t have any friends,” Barnes said.
Barnes was sentenced 25 years to life upon newly discovered DNA tests, which pointed the investigation back to Barnes. Upon the original investigation, he freely allowed officers to search his vehicle. Three and a half years later, tests showed that a single strand of hair was similar to that of the victim’s and the unique stitching in her jeans matched a similar pattern in the vehicle. The state also introduced the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Robert Stolo, who said Barnes confessed to him while in jail awaiting trial more than two years after the crime.
Twenty long years went by of the same monotonous routine. By six am, prisoners had to be standing or sitting. This was followed by breakfast, which was followed by work. Barnes worked in maintenance, earning $1.50 per day. Work was followed by an optional dinner. Then came rec time. Then lights out. Then the next day.
Finally, after two decades, witnesses came back confessing their testimonies were false. Evidence was re-examined and as a result to the appeal, Barnes was released. The district attorney, now a judge in upstate New York, could not look him in the eye as he offered a public apology.
Following in suit to the law passed by President Bush and Congress for wrongful incarceration and compensation, Barnes was remunerated for his “pain and suffering,” for a total of $80,000 per year.
The Innocence Project, a national litigation organization who assisted Barnes in obtaining his well deserved freedom and compensation, took him out upon his release for a steak dinner with friends and family to celebrate.
Barnes missed a lot out of his prime years- he missed the birth of his nieces, holidays, severe changes in technology and the economy. Upon his release, Barnes did not even know what a Walmart was.
“Life goes on,” Barnes said quietly. “It’s in the past.”
It will have been three years to the day since Barnes’ release on Nov 25. Living the life of a free man, Barnes stated he now tries to “live each day like a holiday.”
Alaska Innocence Project will be cosponsoring a lecture with Steve Barnes on Wednesday, Nov 2, 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Rasmuson Hall, Room 117.