Longform

Presumed guilty

Helen Bass enjoyed an ordered if unremarkable life. The 42-year-old vocational nurse worked the second shift at the state hospital in Wichita Falls. A tidy woman who lived alone, Bass occasionally entertained a friend in the evening but mostly kept to herself. After work, according to her neighbors, she would often bathe before settling down for the night with a book, a Coors Light, and a pack of Benson & Hedges.

When Bass failed to show up at her job on November 30, 1989, her associates grew worried -- she rarely missed a day and always called in advance if she had a problem. Mary Barnes, a fellow nurse who frequently carpooled with Bass and had dropped her off at home the evening before, called a neighbor, Sharon Mergerson. Would she check on her friend?

Despite the November chill, the door to the small wood-frame house on Harding Street was wide open when Mergerson arrived. Her surprise turned to alarm when she encountered the chaos inside. In the bedroom she saw Helen Bass. Mergerson called the police.

Officers found the body lying on the bed, covered with blood. Bass had been bludgeoned with a rifle butt and another heavy object, stabbed, and shot in the head. Blood was splattered throughout her bedroom and smeared in other parts of the house. Sperm in her vagina indicated she'd been sexually assaulted. To gain access to the house, the killer had kicked in a rear door with such force that the frame had been torn from the wall.

The savage killing was but the latest in a series of shocks that month to residents in Wichita Falls' East Side community, already reeling from a string of violent crimes that included a murder-rape just five days earlier. Police were feeling pressure to make an arrest.

Within a day investigators had a suspect: Odell Barnes, Mary's son, who had been released from prison several weeks earlier after serving less than 20 months of an eight-year sentence for robbery. According to police reports, an anonymous telephone tipster linked Barnes, then 21, to the murder, and a witness placed him at the scene of the crime the night Bass was killed.

The investigation moved forward quickly. A pinkie fingerprint found on a lamp that may have been used to beat the victim belonged to Barnes. Another witness told police he saw Barnes with the gun that may have been used in the crime. A partial bloody sneaker print on a checkbook cover was consistent with the pattern on a pair of basketball shoes owned by the suspect (though several million similar pairs were walking around the country at the time). A spot of blood found on his coveralls matched the victim's blood type; lab tests indicated that the semen in the body could have come from Barnes, though the science of DNA testing had not yet advanced enough to prove either link conclusively.

And his guilt in other violent crimes lent credence to his involvement in the murder.

The case fell an eyewitness short of a slam-dunk for the prosecution, but the evidence proved compelling enough to a jury. Barnes was convicted of capital murder in 1991 and sentenced to death.

Barnes admits to a number of crimes, including robbery and rape. He admits using crack and stealing to support his craving. He admits that he has screwed up almost every chance he has had to straighten himself out. But he doesn't admit to murder. "I'm no angel," Barnes says, "but I didn't do this."

Of course, many convicts profess innocence, especially if their lives are on the line. But Barnes has far more than mere words to back his claim. Recent lab tests and extensive looks at the evidence have ripped away key elements of the case against him, and new witnesses have contradicted the prosecution's version of what happened that night.

The team of attorneys and investigators working to save Barnes contends that the verdict resulted from a deadly combination of factors: a botched investigation, ineffective trial lawyers, and a convict-at-all-costs attitude on the part of police and prosecutors. They cite a pattern of corners cut, testimony changed, evidence ignored. "What happened to actually working a case?" asks Mike Ward, a private investigator and former cop who has dissected the initial investigation. "What happened to following every possible lead? When did it change to 'Let's just get a conviction, period'?"

The defense may be biased, but scientific analysis confirms at least some of those impressions. Blood-preservative expert Kevin Ballard tested the spot of blood found on Barnes' coveralls (which DNA testing eventually confirmed came from the victim). His conclusion: The blood was either accidentally spilled from a vial onto the coveralls by the state crime lab -- or deliberately planted there. "This is the most blatant case of tainted evidence I've ever seen," Ballard says.

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Bob Burtman