NSB negotiates state settlement for client Steven Barnes
Rocco LaDuca, Utica Observer-Dispatch, Jan. 7, 2011
Not much has changed yet for Steven Barnes after recently receiving a check for $3.5 million from the state as payback for all those years he was wrongfully blamed for killing 16-year-old Kimberly Simon in 1985.
The humble Marcy man still goes to work everyday helping youths through Oneida County Workforce Development, and he still eats the same turkey sandwich and homemade soup his mother packs daily for lunch.
Having spent more than 19 years behind bars, 44-year-old Barnes said he is just grateful to be enjoying all the day-to-day routines that most people take for granted. And while the multi-million dollar settlement he received through the state Court of Claims last month for his wrongful imprisonment will certainly make his life easier, Barnes said it’s not nearly enough to make up for lost time.
“I’m glad it’s over with, but after spending 20 years of your life in prison, I don’t think you could ever put a figure on that – but this helps,” Barnes said Thursday. “Now I can go on with my life, enjoy my life and live my life, which I couldn’t live for all those years.”
Former state Court of Claims Judge Norman Siegel in Utica awarded the settlement on Oct. 8, but Barnes and his mother, Sylvia Bouchard, wanted news of this windfall to remain hushed for as long as possible. On Thursday, Barnes’ New York City-based attorney, Debi Cornwall, finally disclosed the settlement.
Now, Barnes is investing the money while he considers how he would like to spend the non-taxed cash, including the prospect of buying or building a home in the Mohawk Valley.
“I’m not thinking about leaving the area, so I’ll probably just buy a house and take a few vacations. I always wanted to go to Hawaii or the Bahamas,” Barnes explained. “But I don’t want to quit my job because it’s part of my life; it’s part of my routine to get up in the morning and go to work. I don’t like to sit around, so it will keep me busy.”
Barnes also said he’d like to buy his mother something special or take her on a vacation, but Bouchard said she doesn’t need any luxuries like that. After spending years working with the Innocence Project until recent DNA tests proved Barnes didn’t rape Simon, Bouchard said she’s received everything she wanted when the shackles fell off her son in November 2008.
“There’s not enough money in the world that would mean more to me than having Steve’s freedom,” Bouchard said. “He stops in every morning at 6 a.m. to check on me, and when my son walks through the door, you can’t put a price on that.”
Although the entire family treats Barnes like “King Steve” whenever he is around, Bouchard said the money hasn’t made him extravagant. When Barnes received the money, he actually thought of buying a used snowmobile instead of an expensive new one, Bouchard said.
“He’s just the same loveable son that I raised,” Bouchard said. “And I couldn’t be prouder to be his mother – millionaire or not.”
Bouchard does, however, have a copy of the $3.5 million check from New York State framed in the window of her Marcy home, she said. Bouchard also knows that some people may try getting close to Barnes knowing that he gained so much money, but she said she’s not worried about him being taken advantage of.
“There are always the vultures out there, but Steve has been home two years now and he’s smart enough to figure out who his friends are and who aren’t,” Bouchard said.
In the meantime, the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office has spent the past two years trying to find out who really killed Simon in September 1985 and why the initial investigation 25 years ago failed to undercover to actual perpetrator.
The settlement was agreed to by the state Attorney General’s Office, but officials could not be reached to comment Thursday afternoon.
Barnes’ attorney, Debi Cornwall, a partner with the firm Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, said no amount of money will ever fully compensate Barnes for the years he spent in prison. But, she noted, Barnes ultimately received more money for each year he spent in prison than most other wrongfully convicted people have received – about $184,000 each year for Barnes versus the standard $100,000.
“I think that the state of New York saw this as an obvious injustice and understood how sympathetic Steve is and, as the judge said, what strong character Steve has,” Cornwall said Thursday.
In court, Judge Siegel emphasized that he did everything he could to get Barnes’ matter settled as quickly and as fairly as possible so that Barnes could move on with his life. He also credited Barnes for never giving up his claims of innocence, no matter how challenging the obstacles had seemed.
“I would hope and pray that you can look forward rather than look back and that you can continue to be the productive and responsible citizen that I understand you have been since you left prison,” Siegel told Barnes, according to a transcript.
“I think that it has been a positive experience for other people in the community to see that even though an injustice may have been done to you, it doesn’t justify them acting in an irresponsible way,” Siegel added.
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