Killing Time

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

Rose is skeptical of the evidence that led to the conviction of Odell Barnes. Word on the street has always been that Barnes didn't do it, she says.

"I really don't personally believe he did the killing," Rose says matter-of-factly. "Wichita Falls is not interested enough to find out what [really] happened."

George Hixson
The defense team (left to right) - Charlton, Wischkaemper, Ward, Taylor, Milstein - scrambles to stave off the execution.
Steve Lowry
The defense team (left to right) - Charlton, Wischkaemper, Ward, Taylor, Milstein - scrambles to stave off the execution.

Barry Macha hunches forward intently in his swivel chair, his office cluttered with piles of papers that create a sense of motion. On one wall hang the photos of five young women, victims of serial killer Faryion Wardrip. "I'm not a fanatic about the death penalty," Macha says. "I don't take it lightly. I believe in certain cases it is appropriate."

Because of the nature of the crime, Macha says, Barnes is one of those cases. "It was war [in the victim's house], absolute war," he says. "Hit, beat, stabbed, shot, raped -- I hate to think what that human being went through the last moments of her life."

Macha soft-pedals some of the less convincing aspects of the case. Asked to propose a scenario to explain the time lag between the Brooks sighting of Barnes at the house and the actual crime, he dodges. "The scenario is that he's seen leaving the victim's premises," Macha says. "Whether it's before or after, he's at the scene."

Similarly, Macha won't address the likelihood of the perpetrator having only two tiny spots of blood on his coveralls. "My take on that," he says, "that's her blood on his coveralls. End of discussion."

As for Barnes having had a relationship with Bass, Macha calls that an "evolving defense." It wasn't brought up at trial, he notes, and now seems to be surfacing as a way to explain the presence of semen. "I suppose he has to make that allegation, since the DNA evidence nails him."

Macha kicks back in his chair with a patient expression. "You have to look at what I'm looking at," he says. "His semen is in her. Her blood is on his coveralls. His fingerprint is on the bloody lamp that was used to strike her. He was seen on the premises. That's pretty incriminating evidence."

Assistant D.A. Gerry Taylor agrees. "If you eliminated any one of these things," he says, "there would still be enough there in my opinion to warrant a conviction."

Not that the defense can eliminate anything, he says, including the blood. Just as the prosecution produced two experts to challenge Libby Johnson's opinion that the semen had been deposited in the victim well before the crime, the tainted blood can be challenged as well. "I think our experts will come in and say something different," Taylor predicts. "We've already connected with some experts about what they might say. They're prepared to controvert this."

Besides, Macha points out, Barnes has proven to be a danger to society many times before. After gaining the murder conviction, Macha prosecuted Barnes for two rapes that happened while he was on parole in 1987 and '88. Both of the cases included a DNA link. Barnes got life for one conviction and 99 years for the other. The reason he tried those cases after he'd already won the death penalty, Macha explains, is simple: The law at the time dictated that Barnes would have been eligible for parole in 15 years had his sentence been commuted. "That was unacceptable to me," he says.

Macha believes those aren't Barnes's only transgressions. He mentions the still-unsolved murder that occurred before Bass's, and a few other crimes. He would have charged Barnes in those cases, he says, if he'd had sufficient evidence to prove them.

Still, says Macha reflectively, anybody with new information in the Bass case should come forward. "Bring it to the police, bring it to us, bring it to me," he says. "Whoever's case it is, whether death row or not death row, if there's some evidence out there that would exonerate somebody, you bet I would want to know about it.

"If it's not him, I want to be the first one to know."

Odell Barnes seems remarkably stoic for a man just 43 days from his last breath. Though his six-foot-four-inch frame is crammed awkwardly into an interview cage at Ellis Unit, his boyish face smiles through the grate. Told of the new evidence possibly connecting someone else to the crime, Barnes sighs. "I just wish I had better lawyers a long time ago," he says.

He doesn't think much about what will happen if his appeals fail. "You just live one day at a time and hope for the best," he says. "That's all I can do."

The evening of the Bass murder, Barnes says, was pretty typical. He and Johnny Ray Humphrey went looking for dope after they got off work. They separated around 9:30 or 10 p.m. He scored some crack on Flood Street and hung out at a friend's house till about 11:45, then headed for home. A few blocks from his house he saw his mother drive by after dropping off Bass. He arrived about five minutes after she did (which Mary Barnes corroborates). They stayed up for a couple of hours talking, then went to bed.

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