Can PA Murder Charge Be Sustained After Four Decades?


William Barnes served 20 years in prison for shooting and partly paralyzed a Philadelphia police officer in 1966. Last month, 41 years after the shooting, a prosecutor filed new charges of murder after the officer, Walter Barclay Jr., died of an infection she says stems from the shooting, reports the New York Times. Barnes, now 71, was sent back to prison. “The law is that when you set in motion a chain of events,” said District Attorney Lynne Abraham, “a perpetrator of a crime is responsible for every single thing that flows from that chain of events, no matter how distant, as long as we can prove the chain is unbroken.”

Legal experts have never seen an attempt to stretch causation medically across four decades. Some worry about the precedent the case could set concerning double jeopardy. Establishing an unbroken chain could be difficult in light of Barclay's medical history. After his initial paralysis, his condition improved significantly; he reinjured his spine repeatedly, in two car accidents and in a fall from his wheelchair. Barclay also contracted hepatitis, which could have weakened his ability later to fight off infections. Allen Hornblum, an urban studies professor at Temple University, said new charges were “vindictive, pure and simple.”


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