Killing Time

The case against him died from lack of evidence. But Texas still plans to execute Odell Barnes.

Rice didn't make much headway, but she did learn enough to feel uncomfortable about the verdict. "I believe there were several people there," Rice says. "I think Odell was capable of doing it, but I don't know if he did it."

She has little doubt, however, that Cannedy and Wilson were unprepared for trial. "Probably the most disturbing thing was that his attorneys did not do an investigation," Rice says. "I had never seen a case where [the defense] didn't do anything at all."

But as so often happens in capital cases, the struggle to clear Barnes wouldn't begin in earnest until the 11th hour.

Neighborhood activist Josie Rose doesn't think Barnes killed Bass.
Bob Burtman
Neighborhood activist Josie Rose doesn't think Barnes killed Bass.

The cool breeze and soothing sounds of breaking waves belie the war-room atmosphere inside the Galveston beach house. Amid scattered mounds of legal briefs and trays of food, three lawyers and two private investigators bang on laptops, struggle with cell phones, group and ungroup. With the execution date looming, they're scrambling to tie off loose ends and file a motion that might save the life of Odell Barnes.

In 1998 U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings appointed attorneys Philip Wischkaemper and Gary Taylor to represent Barnes in his late-stage appeals. They hired private investigator Lisa Milstein, who began digging with a fine-tooth comb, instead of the pitchfork wielded by her predecessors. Attorney Mike Charlton, a veteran of many capital appeals, joined the effort.

Backed by $16,000 from anti-death-penalty Europeans and using their own funds to supplement the meager cash rations from the court, the team hired several experts to review the evidence. As their analyses rolled in, the sense of urgency about the case grew exponentially.

What most shocked the defense team was the shoddy way the crime scene had been handled. Evidence, including the kicked-in door, closet doors with visible fingerprints from the victim's bedroom and a stained washcloth, had vanished. Police eventually located the entryway door, unlabeled, lying in a garage that was being used as a temporary storage facility. The shoe print described in the initial police report had been wiped clean, a significant matter -- Barnes has size 14EEE feet, and the print identified in the initial police report could easily have been measured.

Moreover, police had tested none of the blood smeared in different parts of the house to see if it matched the victim's (or Barnes's, for that matter); the same goes for blood that appeared on a number of articles, including a towel apparently discarded by the killer outside the house. Though Bass had two broken fingernails that might have split in the struggle, her hands weren't bagged and no scrapings were taken, standard procedure in a homicide investigation. Other evidence was improperly labeled.

The presence of a bloody shoe print suggests that others should have been in the house as well; but a more sensitive dusting to lift such prints was never done either. The videotape and photos taken at the scene were of such poor quality that they're practically worthless. The videotape bounces around more nauseatingly than in The Blair Witch Project.

And a number of fingerprints lifted at the scene were never compared with those of other possible suspects or the victim -- an obvious, egregious oversight. "It appears to be a less than diligent effort," concludes defense investigator Mike Ward. "It's the McDonald's style of burger-flipping police work." In a capital murder case, Ward says, "there should be no rock unturned; there should be no piece of evidence not tested."

Certified forensic examiner John Jacobson came to the same conclusion. "In my opinion," he wrote in a letter after reviewing the evidence, "the processing of this crime scene, or lack thereof, can be described at best as sloppy and unprofessional."

Even the Wichita Falls police agree. After revisiting that investigation and several others during the period, the department completely overhauled procedures. "There were parts of that crime scene that if you read the books today, you could look back and say, 'Boy, did we do that wrong,' " says detective Bill Pursley. In particular, Pursley cites a lack of training to shoot video and take pictures, improper numbering and packaging of evidence, and the lack of fingerprint checks. "It just kind of surprised me that those prints were never compared with anybody."

The defense team still faced one seemingly impossible hurdle: DNA evidence. Tests done by the state in 1998 proved that it was Barnes's semen in the victim and that the blood on his coveralls belonged to Helen Bass.

Though the prosecution contended that Barnes had kicked in the door and waited for the victim to come home, that scenario had always seemed strange. Not only did his mother work with Bass and was one of her best friends, but Barnes had done roofing and other odd jobs on her house, facts established at trial. If he had wanted to gain access, says neighborhood activist and businesswoman Josie Rose, he could simply have knocked on the door. "He wouldn't have tore up her house like that," Rose says.

His work for Bass could explain the fingerprint on the lamp; as for the semen, Barnes says he and Bass had an ongoing sexual relationship, a claim backed by residents in the neighborhood where they lived. The last time he had sex with Bass, he says, was two days before her death.

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