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Judge denies Barnes new hearing in ’86 killings

LOCKPORT – Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas changed her mind last week and refused to hold another hearing for a Lockport man convicted of a 1986 double murder.

Farkas was angered when defense attorney Dominic Saraceno sought to force the District Attorney’s Office out of the case.

She reacted by canceling the hearing she had scheduled on whether the public defender who originally represented William J. Barnes Jr. withheld a plea offer from him 27 years ago.

“Take him back [to prison]. I’m not going to let these issues become eternal. If I’m wrong, so be it. He can take it to the next level. I’m not letting these cases go on forever and spending the taxpayers’ money on something that happened 15 or 20 years ago,” Farkas said.

Counting appeals, this was Barnes’ ninth attempt at winning a new trial since a jury in January 1987 convicted Barnes of murdering his girlfriend, Irene L. Bucher, 21, and William R. Moffitt, 35, on Jan. 7, 1986, when Barnes caught them having sex in the apartment Barnes and Bucher shared on Park Avenue in Lockport.

In March 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court opened a new angle for Barnes to pursue. It ruled in a Missouri case that if a defense attorney withholds a plea offer from his client that the defendant and the judge would have accepted, a conviction can be overturned.

Court minutes from 1986 show that a plea offer with a sentence of 25 years to life was made to Barnes’ attorneys, Joseph L. Leone Jr. and the late Robert A. Rotundo.

This apparently occurred in a private conference among the prosecutor, Stephen A. Shierling; County Judge Aldo L. DiFlorio; and the defense attorneys. There was no stenographic record, and the minutes don’t say if Barnes was there.

Barnes, now 50, said in a Buffalo News interview at Wende Correctional Facility in November that he wasn’t present.

But a letter he wrote to Leone in September 1986 said that he would be willing to take a 25-to-life sentence.

Leone told The News that Barnes rejected the plea offer. Barnes went to trial in January 1987 and was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder. DiFlorio sentenced him to two consecutive sentences of 25 years to life.

“I granted this hearing out of an abundance of caution,” Farkas said. “I have since been told by a judge on the Court of Appeals that if I have an affidavit from an attorney who says a plea bargain was communicated, I shouldn’t even be having a hearing.”

Public defender Saraceno said a special prosecutor was necessary because Leone and current District Attorney Michael J. Violante were law partners at the time of the trial.

Leone told The News that he and Violante didn’t join forces until after the Barnes trial, in which Violante played no role.

“I think there is an appearance of impropriety,” Saraceno argued, and as he pressed the point, Farkas erupted and canceled Barnes’ latest day in court.

There may be another. Barnes submitted a new motion, alleging that his rights were violated because the jury selection process at his trial was not transcribed.

“I have an affidavit [from DiFlorio’s court reporter] that says that was the ordinary procedure then,” Assistant District Attorney Thomas H. Brandt said. Procedures have changed, and jury selection is always transcribed in County Court now.