Case histories reveal troubling questions about circumstances of the crimes BATTERED SPOUSE SYNDROME & COMMUTATIONS

March 17, 1991|By David Simon and William F. Zorzi Jr. James Bock of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

On Feb. 18, Gov. William Donald Schaefer was given a review of the cases of eight women whose sentences he would commute the next day. All but one of the women were convicted in the killings of their mates.

The review, from Mary Ann Saar, the governor's director of operations and public safety, and Nancy J. Nowak, director of his Office of Justice Assistance, offered Mr. Schaefer "justification and clarification which may be helpful in your decision making."

It depicted the eight women and their stories of abuse in strong, unequivocal terms.

Announcing the commutations Feb. 19, the governor described the women and their accounts in similarly certain terms: "If I were the judge, I'd weigh all the evidence, particularly if I was allowed to review the evidence as to how these women were treated. And it wasn't a matter of one time, it was a continual, continual, continual beating that these women suffered."

But a review of the legal record and interviews by The Sun suggest that at least three of the seven homicide cases are not unequivocal. In their cases, the record contradicts the accounts that were provided to the governor.

An eighth woman released had not committed murder; she was serving time for assault. All of the women freed by the governor last month remain on supervised probation.

Here (italicized) are excerpts from the memo, followed by readily available information gathered by reporters who reviewed the legal record and interviewed those involved in the cases:


Charge: Murder I, Conspiracy to Commit Murder

Sentence: Life with all but 40 years suspended

Time Served: 2 years, 2 months

Rationale: 20 year history of abuse that included abuser shooting Ms. Barnes in head and leg which has resulted in paralysis of right side of body and temporary blindness. Death threats to family members. Bullet remains lodged in head. Called police seven times without adequate assistance. Offense occurred after severe beating and rape.

No question exists that Bernadette Barnes suffered prior abuse. She was shot by her husband 10 years before she had him killed. In fact, reporters quickly located documentary evidence of possible abuse exceeding that provided to state officials -- a further indication that the effort to corroborate the women's accounts was limited.

However, the question raised by Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms is whether Barnes was driven to have her husband killed because he was abusing her or because she stood to collect $22,000 or more from insurance policies on his life.

While Bernadette Barnes insisted to a reporter that the murder of her husband was motivated by fear rather than money, Mr. Simms calls the murder of Henry Barnes a "contract murder, plain and simple."

Governor Schaefer could not even ponder this argument. He was never told about the murder-for-profit element of the Barnes case.

Henry Barnes was found dead behind the wheel of his parked car on Baltimore's West Lafayette Avenue in October 1987, killed by one blast from a sawed-off shotgun. His wife, who had given a photograph of her husband to the contract killer, was at her office at the time of the murder.

The crime remained unsolved until the following March, when police learned of a murder-for-hire plot known to several of Bernadette Barnes' co-workers at the city Department of Social Services. One of those co-workers, Pamela Mitchell, allowed detectives to record a telephone conversation in which the murder and police pressure were discussed:

"Damn, Pammy," Bernadette Barnes told her friend. "Just don't come apart on me, please."

"Well I'm trying, but I'm scared," said Ms. Mitchell. "They know a lot. . . ."

"They don't know nothing, Pammy," said Barnes.

In addition to being a key piece of evidence, the taped conversation helped to convince Mr. Simms and other investigators that Bernadette Barnes was a woman with the wherewithal to manipulate her environment. At various points, Barnes urges her friend not to tell grand jurors anything, not to contact a lawyer -- "a lawyer gonna want to know damn questions" -- and to avoid wiretaps by not calling Barnes at home.

At the time of the taped call, Barnes had already received $22,000 from one insurance policy, but during the call she notes with some frustration that the police attention has probably delayed payment of another policy on her husband:

"Goddamn. I don't need this. See, that's why the insurance company hasn't paid off. Now I understand. 'Cause I haven't received anything from the insurance company. Nothing."

At trial, Barnes initially pleaded innocent, and her attorney attempted to raise the issue of domestic abuse.

Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe prohibited the lawyer froaddressing the issue in opening statements, citing Maryland law that allows such testimony only where traditional self-defense is a viable issue.

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