Odell Barnes, Jr. (Texas) Case Summary Chart

Allegation

On March 1, 2000, the State of Texas, with acquiescence by the federal government, executed Odell Barnes by lethal injection. The state and federal governments failed to ensure Barnes’s right to a fair and impartial trial. The unfair trial resulted in Barnes’s execution.

Crime

Helen Bass was murdered on November 30, 1989. She had been shot, bludgeoned, and stabbed. She was found face down on her bed, nude. A rifle butt was found in her room and a kitchen knife covered in blood was found on the floor just inside the door to her house. The room was in shambles. Her jewelry box and two purses appeared to have been dumped and scattered. Other belongings were discovered near a fence outside her house. Barnes was arrested, tried, and convicted for the murder.

Salient Issues

Trial

Barnes was convicted of Helen Bass’ murder. The prosecution’s case against Barnes consisted primarily of circumstantial evidence. Two witnesses were presented to link Barnes to the murder weapon. There was substantial evidence implicating one of these witnesses in the murder. The other witness agreed to testify in exchange for a deal on two drug charges, despite a state policy prohibiting such deals. There was no other evidence that the gun had been in Barnes’s possession or that he had used it. Two small spots of blood were found on coveralls in Barnes’s car. The blood was consistent with the victim’s blood type, which is also the blood type of 50% of the African-American population in in the U.S. Another witness for the prosecution testified that he had seen Barnes jump a fence at the victim’s house one and one-half hours before she returned from work, even though he had earlier told his sister that it was not Barnes. This witness admitted he was at least 45 yards away. Barnes’s mother testified that she had brought the victim home that night and returned to her home whereupon her son arrived within five minutes.

Defense attorneys appointed by the state failed to carry out their own investigation or to test independently the forensic evidence. At trial, they did not present evidence of Barnes’s innocence or challenge the prosecution’s witnesses.

Appeals

Initial appeals at the state level were handled by Barnes’s original state appointed lawyers. Both the District Court of Wichita County and the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision and upheld Barnes’s conviction and sentence. Part way through the appeals process, new attorneys took over the case. Finding that independent investigations and forensic testing had never been done, they asked courts for funds and time to investigate. In Texas, new evidence must be introduced within 30 days of the original sentencing. They were repeatedly denied, but performed an investigation using volunteers and private funding, which uncovered substantial evidence of innocence. They also uncovered evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, perjury, and constitutional violations. Nevertheless, state and federal courts denied relief.

Conclusion

Odell Barnes was executed despite compelling evidence of his innocence that was never heard by any court in the United States. His original court-appointed defense attorneys failed to provide him with adequate legal counsel. They neither found nor presented evidence of his innocence or evidence challenging key prosecution witnesses. Once the opportunity had been missed at the trial level, state and federal appeals courts refused to hear new evidence – evidence that had been suppressed by the prosecution and that had gone undiscovered by the defense. In many cases, inflexible time limits and increasingly rigid thresholds for review, such as those imposed by the Federal Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, lead to violations of constitutional protections and human rights. Odell Barnes’s was one such case. Despite the fact that he did not receive a fair trial and in spite of evidence of his innocence, no appeals court would hear his case.

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