He Spent 418 Days in Prison for a Crime He Did Not Commit

Joel Barnes: Joel Barnes

It was an ideal summer afternoon for a barbecue at his grandmother's house.

Joel Barnes, a lifelong Camden resident, stopped by a friend's house to ask for help setting up the barbecue. But his visit that afternoon on August 2, 2008 took a dark turn when Camden Police officers raided the home in search of illegal drugs.

Barnes, along with the other occupants in the house, was herded into the kitchen. An officer slipped handcuffs on Barnes and emptied his pockets, fishing out a cellphone, money and house keys. There were no drugs.

Even so, Barnes, then 26, was led in handcuffs to a police van, where he waited for an hour.

"Where's the shit at?" one officer asked repeatedly. Barnes assumed he meant drugs.

He answered truthfully: he did not know.

Another officer pulled a bag containing drugs from his own pocket, and ordered Barnes, "Tell us where the shit's at and we'll make this disappear."

Barnes, growing angrier, insisted he did not know if there were drugs in the house. This wasn't good enough for the police. They threatened to file more serious charges against him relating to the officer's bag of drugs, saying, "If you don't start talking, my pen is going to do the talking."

The officers charged Barnes with possession of drugs (which belonged to the officers) with intent to distribute. He was taken to Camden County Correctional Facility, where he remained for one day before posting bail.

When he was released, no one - not even his own mother - believed his claims that he was innocent.

"Just handle it and move on," she said.

He ultimately handled it by pleading guilty on February 23, 2009 because he feared his truthful testimony wouldn't stand a chance in court against police officers' testimony. On April 17, 2009, he began a five-year prison sentence.

He would remain behind bars for 418 days.

Every week, Barnes called his mother, who kept him up to date on family matters and current events. One week, his mother read a newspaper article over the phone about Camden Police officers who were accused of planting drug evidence on suspects. Barnes immediately recognized the names of the charged officers - they had arrested him, too.

Barnes retrieved his legal file, which confirmed their identities. Then he started making phone calls - to the public defender's office, to the courts, to any phone number listed in his court files. No one helped him.

Meanwhile, three of the charged officers, Jason Stetser, Kevin Parry and Dan Morris, pleaded guilty to planting evidence on numerous suspects. On February 2, 2010, the New Jersey Superior Court vacated Barnes's conviction.

But four months would pass before Barnes was finally freed on June, 8, 2010 with the help of the ACLU. By then, he had missed 418 days' worth of birthdays, holidays, celebrations and precious time with his family.

One month later, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of Barnes against the Camden Police Department.

Barnes now avoids cops when he sees them. While he's happy to be free, the misconceptions about his lawsuit trouble him.

"It's good because I'm back out here, free," Barnes said. "But it's bad because people who hear about my case aren't worried about what happened. They see this case and they think it's about money, which is crazy. I can't buy the time that I lost back with money."

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