October 5, 2010

Exoneree Speaks About Experience With Justice System

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At the age of 23, Steven Barnes was convicted in the rape and murder of 16-year-old Kimberly Simon based on inconclusive DNA evidence and imprecise eyewitness testimony, and sentenced to 25 years to life imprisonment for a crime that he did not commit. He served nearly 20 years of that sentence in several New York State prisons before his case was reexamined using advanced DNA technology and he was exonerated.

On Tuesday, Barnes shared his story with approximately fifty Cornell students and faculty members in Myron Taylor Hall.

At times he poked fun at the absurdity of his situation, and at other times he preached the life lessons he had come to learn after two decades of introspection; but, for the most part, Barnes was soft-spoken and reflective, chronicling his life with careful attention to detail.

He admitted that he still felt “a little weird” readjusting to life outside of jail, but that he has lived every day since his release “like it’s Christmas.”

“Every day is a holiday, every day,” he said. “I missed a lot. I missed family members that passed away … I had a girl I was in love with [before I went to prison] and I had to tell her to go find another guy, she had to live her life.”

“I lost seven years of my 20’s, 10 years of my 30’s and three years of my 40’s,” he added.

It was 1985, and Barnes was 19 years old, when police first began investigating him as a prime suspect in Kimberly Simon’s death. Witnesses, who would later testify against Barnes in the case, said that they saw his “distinct” truck parked near the street where the victim was murdered, according to a summary of the case published by the Innocence Project. Other witnesses said that they saw a young man who “matched Barnes’ description” parked alongside the street that night.

Three days after Simon’s death, Barnes said that police investigators brought him down to the station and questioned him for 12 straight hours. Barnes maintained his innocence, saying that he had been at a bowling alley that evening.

“They verbally harassed me,” he said. “They kept calling me a liar, telling me I was lying.” He added that he was given a polygraph test, which proved inconclusive.

Police would follow Barnes for the next three years, as they worked to build a case against him. Investigators tailed him and questioned his girlfriend and others about “what type of person” Barnes was and “what movies he liked.” Barnes recalled that police once followed him and his girlfriend on a ski vacation and he actually saw one of the investigators skiing down the mountain past him.

On May 15, 1989, Barnes was officially arrested and tried by a jury.

Barnes said that several witnesses came forward at the time of the trial who had previously been uninvolved with the case. He said that one off-duty police officer suddenly came forward at the time of the trial, stating that he had been driving down the street around the time of the murder and could definitively place Barnes and his truck on the block that night.

“He was only able to identify me three and a half years later — he had a better memory three and a half years later,” Barnes said. “He also happened to be running for a sheriff position [the year of the trial.]”

According to the Innocence Project’s summary, prosecutors also entered into evidence hairs that were recovered from Barnes’ truck that they said were similar to the victim’s and soil samples from his tires that they said had “similar characteristics” to dirt at the crime scene. Nothing proved definitive, however.

Barnes would ultimately be convicted and taken to a prison in upstate New York.

“I was 23 years old, never been in trouble before in my life, I thought I’d be home in a couple of years. Little did I know it would be nearly 20 years,” he said.

Barnes described life in prison as “hell on earth.” He said that he was once stabbed by an “icepick” in his arm and was forced into several fights.

“I’ve personally seen guys murdered,” he said.

Barnes said that guards would come back after having bad days with their wives and their girlfriends and then take it out on inmates.

“Prison is a place where you’re forced to live around people you hate,” he said.

“You have no friends in prison,” he added. “Everyone who you thought was your friend — your homeboys — aren’t, they don’t want anything to do with you. All you have is your brother, your sister, your mom — that’s it.”

All the while, Barnes worked to clear his name.

From prison, he penned a ten-page letter to the Innocence Project –– which works to exonerate wrongly convicted prisoners based on advanced DNA testing techniques –– pleading with them to open his case.

Though they agreed to take on his case in 1993, they did not have the technology available in 1996 when the DNA tests returned to officially exonerate him, as the tests were ruled inconclusive.

More than a decade later, Barnes said that his brother went down to the Innocence Project and begged them to reopen Barnes’ case. They agreed, and shortly thereafter –– using a previously unavailable DNA technology called Y-STR –– he was freed.

“It was Nov. 1, 2008, it was on a Friday. I’ll never forget,” Barnes said. “I spoke to my mom on the phone — she was crying. I thought something had happened and she said, ‘you’re coming home.’”

Barnes said that he instantly dropped the phone and started crying.

“I remember when I was sentenced it was tears of sadness, but now it was tears of joy,” Barnes said.

Barnes said that the first thing he did when he was released on Jan. 9, 2009 was eat a steak.

“I said to the waitress, ‘Well, what do I do with this?’ I hadn’t eaten real food since I was put in prison,” he said with a laugh.

Today, Barnes is a program coordinator for youths working to earn their GEDs. He said that, for his job, he needed to take a course on how to use a computer and also asked his niece to teach him how to use a cell phone –– two technologies that significantly evolved during his time in prison.

He has also previously worked as a counselor for recently-released inmates, as they begin to readjust to life in the outside world, and frequently goes on speaking tours around the country to spread awareness about the Innocence Project and about prisoners who have been wrongly convicted — a problem that, he said, is more common than many believe.

In the meantime, Barnes is just enjoying his freedom.

“A lot of people don’t think about freedom till it’s gone,” he said. “It’s just so nice to take a walk outside. For 20 years of my life, I needed to ask permission to just take a shower and use the rec. room.”

Original Author: Ben Gitlin