With exoneration, police resume hunt for Simon murderer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By Glenn Coin, Staff writer

Steven Barnes stood, free of handcuffs and out of state custody for the first time in nearly 20 years, and embraced his mother and sister.

A man's voiced boomed from the back of the courtroom: "Barnes you're home where you belong, buddy!"

Barnes had spent nearly two decades in prison for a murder he didn't commit. It took a judge just six minutes Tuesday to set him free.

"Mr. Barnes, I rule that you be released immediately," Oneida County Court Judge Michael Dwyer told Barnes, who had been in state prison since 1989 for the murder of a 16-year-old girl.

Friends and family who had jammed the courtroom in Utica erupted into applause.

Barnes was convicted of rape and second-degree murder in the strangling death of a Whitesboro High School student. Tests concluded last week showed that Barnes' DNA matched none of four samples found on Kimberly Simon's body and clothing.

Barnes' lawyers from the Innocence Project, in New York City, and Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara jointly asked for Barnes' release.

Steven Barnes and family
Steve Barnes who was released after serving 20 years for a rape and murder that he did not commit, is hugged by his sister Lisa Pawloski, Tuesday in Utica. At right is his mother, Sylvia Barnes.
At a news conference shortly after the court hearing, Barnes answered questions for about 20 minutes in a soft voice with short sentences.

"I never gave up hope," said Barnes, his sandy brown hair flecked with gray at the temples. "I waited 20 years for this. It's the happiest day of my life."

Barnes said he doesn't know what the Internet is or how to use a cell phone. His mother, Sylvia Barnes Bouchard, said her son didn't believe her when she told him how caller ID works.

Barnes' years behind bars did not steal his sense of humor. After noting he had spent most of his 20s and all of his 30s in prison, Barnes said: "Life begins at 40, they say."

Family and friends who came to Utica Tuesday morning said they always knew he was innocent.

"In my heart, I knew this would happen," said his sister, Michelle Weiler, of Rochester.

Many of the people in the courtroom Tuesday had testified on Barnes' behalf at the trial 19 years ago. Steve Lewandrowski said on the stand in 1989 that the night of the murder Barnes had been drinking with him in the Marcy bowling alley that Lewandrowski owned.

"They were just looking for a conviction," Lewandrowski said. "Steve was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

McNamara said he didn't believe prosecutors engaged in misconduct. If current DNA technology had existed in 1985, he said, Barnes would never have been arrested.

The Innocence Project asked for DNA tests when it got involved in Barnes' case in 1996, but the samples had deteriorated too much for the results to be conclusive. Earlier this year, at the urging of Barnes' brother, Shawn, project lawyers asked for new tests using techniques developed in the past few years.

What those tests showed, McNamara said, was that the DNA samples taken from Simon's body using a rape kit and two samples from her clothing did not match Barnes' DNA.

During the three-week trial in 1989, several witnesses testified that they saw Simon climb into a brown or maroon pickup truck, similar to one owned by Barnes. Others said they saw a man who looked like Barnes standing near a pickup truck in the area where Simon's body was found at about the time police believe she was killed.

Simon's body was found Sept. 18, 1985, in a ditch off Mohawk Street, in Marcy. Barnes was indicted by a county grand jury two and a half years later.

At the time, prosecutors said the case was circumstantial but argued there were too many coincidences.

One of the lawyers who appeared in court Tuesday for Barnes was Barry Scheck, a DNA expert who helped win O.J. Simpson's acquittal on murder charges in 1996. Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992 at Cardoza Law School, in New York City; since then, the project has helped win freedom for more than 200 people.

Scheck said Barnes' case raises questions about how far forensic experts can go in their testimony. At the trial, he said, an expert said that impressions on Barnes' truck matched those of the victim's jeans. There simply isn't enough science to support that kind of testimony, Scheck said.

The sad part, McNamara said, is that the release of Barnes means that the real killer has never been brought to justice. McNamara said his office and state police are investigating the case.

The indictment against Barnes remains in place while that investigation is ongoing. McNamara said he called Simon's family last week to tell them of the DNA results.

"It's probably one of the most difficult things I have had to do, to call the family to tell them someone who had been brought to justice for the brutal assault and death of their daughter was wrongly convicted," McNamara said.

The DA's office received the DNA test results last week and shared them with the Innocence Project lawyers.

Friday, Bouchard said, she received a call from Alba Morales, an Innocence Project lawyer working on Barnes' case, telling her he would be home for Thanksgiving.

Bouchard said she spent more than $100,000 on her son's defense and the effort to free him.

It was all worth it Tuesday as Barnes, his mother and three siblings stood together for the first time in 20 years. His father died when Barnes was 15.

"I'd like to just sit down and have a nice meal with my family," Barnes said. "I haven't used a fork or knife in 20 years."

Barnes said he didn't know if he would file suit over his conviction. Scheck noted that Barnes is entitled to bring a case in the state Court of Claims.

Barnes said he might someday like to work with the Innocence Project to free other innocent people. But he has more modest plans this week, when he joins his family for his first Thanksgiving since 1988:

"I'm just going to sit down at the table and say grace and say, 'I'm going to cut the turkey.' "

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