The Long Vindication

After 35 years and a lengthy sentence for robbery, Ronnie Barrs remains determined to prove his innocence

Ronnie Barrs, now 61, carries the papers documenting his case.
Ronnie Barrs, now 61, carries the papers documenting his case. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For more than 35 years, Ronnie Barrs has insisted that he was not involved in the 1973 robbery of an Austin Minimax grocery store, a crime for which he was convicted the following year. In fact, Barrs doesn't think he ever set foot in the 24-hour Cameron Road grocery, which has long since closed and been replaced by a now-decaying strip center. Having been busted once before, Barrs was given a 50-year sentence; he spent 10 years in prison before being released on parole in 1983. His parole will end in 2011. He's never been in trouble again, and, now 61 years old, he continues to live a quiet life, just east of Austin where he works as a professional house painter.

1973 was a long time ago, and yet Barrs remains determined to clear his name. "It's time now to try to fix it," he said recently. "I hope that I can fix it so that when I leave this earth, I can have a clean slate."

Barrs has been working to fix it since shortly after he was arrested in August 1973, and in earnest since he was sent to prison less than six months later. Over the years, he's written letters to everyone he could think of in an effort to get support for a reinvestigation of his case – including to former U.S. Rep. J.J. Pickle, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and state Rep. Gonzalo Barrientos; to the ACLU, the NAACP, and the Department of Justice; and even to the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. He has stacks of yellowed court papers, permanently creased personal letters (including a cryptic, handwritten letter from the mother of his chief accuser), and a petition collected by his mother while he was in prison that contains more than 500 signatures of East Austin residents who said they believed in his innocence.

Thus far, none of his efforts have panned out. Barrs, who has quick, smiling eyes, remains undeterred. He is certain that one day the truth will come out and that people will finally realize he was convicted of a crime he did not commit. "When you go to prison like that and you know you're innocent, you try to say, 'Society is not like this; we've got the best system in the world,'" he said. "And then you go to realizing, things do happen like this."

Uncertain Eyewitnesses

Just before 11pm on Thursday, July 12, 1973, 18-year-old Linda Yura pulled into the parking lot of the Cameron Village Minimax grocery at 5308 Cameron Rd. She was there to visit with a friend, assistant manager Phil Hen­ning, and to buy some Coca-Cola. There were nearly 20 people in the 24-hour store when Yura, a clerk at the Texas Department of Public Safety, arrived. She'd already walked into the store when she realized she'd forgotten to bring from her car the empty soda bottles she needed to return, she later testified, so she returned to the parking lot. There she saw a two-tone white-over-red late-model two-door vehicle with "four or five negro subjects" inside, according to the police report prepared by the case's lead investigator, then-Austin Police Sgt. Roger Napier. The car and its occupants stood out to Yura because they were just sitting there. "Because usually when you go to the grocery store, everybody gets out," she testified in court in January 1974. "So I got my bottles and went back inside and I got my Cokes and I was checking out, and I noticed them when they came in the store, but it was just briefly."

Three of the people Yura had seen in the car had entered the store, she said, two men and a woman. She didn't pay attention to what they did once inside; she paid for her soda and walked to the manager's area, a little enclosed booth where the store's safe was located, to chat with Henning. When she got there, a shortish and stocky man in pin-striped pants and a leopard-print shirt, one of the men who'd been in the two-tone car, was already standing next to the booth. Yura began chatting with Henning, when the man in the pin-striped pants told Henning, "Tell her to get in there with you." She did so and "just stood there" still talking to Henning, who she noticed "was opening the safe." Henning handed the man a "big wad of bills."

Suddenly a gunshot sounded from somewhere else in the store. Everyone in the store "kind of just stood where they were," Yura recalled. "They were all shocked."

Yura had not realized that the Minimax grocery was being robbed, apparently by the three people she had seen earlier outside. No one was injured in the robbery; a single .38-caliber bullet had been fired when one of the robbers accidentally pulled the trigger on his gun as he hit in the head a 17-year-old cashier who hadn't responded quickly enough to a demand to empty his register. (The youth, John Montgomery, was cut but otherwise unharmed.) The robbers rounded up the occupants of the store, ushered them into a storage room, and took off. (Neither Yura nor Montgomery could be located for this story.)

No money was ever recovered from the robbery, but not quite a month later, police had arrested and charged four people with the crime: Andrew Lee Jackson, James Hopes, Ronnie Barrs, and Barrs' then-wife, Betty. Barrs knew Jackson and Hopes, but they were not friends. But Jackson had told police that he was responsible for the robbery, he had fingered Hopes and Ronnie and Betty Barrs as his accomplices, and he eventually testified about the crime at Barrs' trial. Yet Jackson himself never went to prison for the robbery (though he did do some time for an unrelated offense). Hopes pled guilty and served five years and one day, although he now swears he had nothing to do with the crime. A Travis County grand jury declined to indict Betty Barrs, who had a good alibi.

Only Ronnie Barrs took the case to trial, where he testified that he had not been involved. He too had a decent alibi, but the jury was apparently unpersuaded by his testimony. Yet the majority of the eyewitnesses – customers and employees of the Minimax – were unable to identify Barrs as one of the robbers. Court records also suggest that those who did identify Barrs did so with the encouraging feedback of lead investigator Napier, who told several who tentatively selected Barrs from a multiphoto lineup that they'd gotten the right guy. Ultimately, Barrs was sentenced to prison for a robbery that many in the store did not even realize was taking place.

Now, so many years later, clearing his name presents Barrs with no easy task. Without DNA evidence and with the death in 1993 of Jackson, the state's key witness, proving Barrs had nothing to do with the Minimax robbery may well be impossible. That doesn't mean that aspects of his case aren't compelling. For instance, there's the process by which Barrs was identified by witnesses. Faulty eyewitness ID is the most common factor in wrongful conviction, present in a staggering 75% of all wrongful convictions; if the eyewitnesses from the Minimax were wrong or coached, does there remain any provable case against Barrs?

On the other hand, even if the evidence was tainted or false, can Ronnie Barrs still hope for vindication?

A Simple Story

Sitting in a corner booth at a North Austin IHOP, Barrs smiles often and laughs easily. His hands are expressive, large – remarkably so for his modest 5-foot-10-inch frame – and rough from years of manual labor. He hasn't been able to work recently because of back trouble, and between visits to the doctor and caring for a grandchild, he spends much of his free time trying to track down leads that might help clear his name. He looks for old friends and acquaintances from the early Seventies and pumps them for information and for additional sources – people who might remember something that could now help him. He grew up in Austin, living in Eastside projects with his mother, Margaret, who worked as a cleaning lady at one of the department stores that still operated on Congress Avenue.

Barrs is charming and apparently guileless and never sounds bitter or angry about his fate. His simple determination to clear his name is in part what attracted Austin defense attorney Keith Hampton to his case. Hampton was sitting in his office one afternoon when in walked Barrs, carrying a worn cardboard box full of documents, "and he wants to get his name cleared," Hampton recalled. "I asked him some questions and realized that he'd served his time and was close to getting off parole." That struck Hampton, and he couldn't help but wonder, "Why would he go to all this trouble for something that is so far in the past?"

Barrs told Hampton his story. "I was pretty stunned by what I was hearing," the lawyer said. He even called in a colleague to hear the tale, to see if maybe he was missing something. She was similarly impressed. "This has a ring of truth to it," Hampton said. "This guy seems completely honest."

Barrs in prison in 1974
Barrs in prison in 1974

Barrs' story is deceptively simple. He says he was wrongly fingered for the robbery by Jackson, a man he'd known for years, but not well. Barrs had dated Jackson's sister as a teen in the mid-Sixties but says he never hung around with Jackson (better known as "Lee Lee"), whom his mother considered bad news. Hopes was only an acquaintance; he drove a beer truck during the day and worked nights as a bouncer at the Palladium club on the corner of East 12th Street and Comal. That's the only place Barrs ever saw Hopes, he says, a fact that Hopes confirms. "I used to see him around," Hopes said recently, but the two weren't close.

Why Jackson fingered Barrs for the Minimax job remains uncertain, although Barrs believes he knows. Just before the robbery, Barrs, although he was married to Betty, had begun a very brief affair with a woman he later learned was a steady girlfriend of Jackson's. "I kept my eye on him from a distance," Barrs said, "but it didn't help me out, because when I met [his girlfriend], it set off a fire under him." Jackson died in 1993, and Barrs has long since lost track of the girl.

Jackson, according to both Barrs and Hopes, was a skittish guy who'd been in and out of trouble for years. When the cops came calling, Jackson always got nervous. He often ran, and in those days running generally ended with a beating, they said (at least one former Austin Police Department cop on the beat in the Seventies confirmed that would not have been uncommon). Barrs says he's been told that whenever the cops squeezed Jackson, he told them whatever he could. Barrs believes that when they came calling on the Minimax robbery, Jackson not only got nervous, he also got even with Barrs.

Based on the available record, the story Jackson told police about the robbery changed officially and significantly no less than three times, including while he was on the witness stand at Barrs' trial. According to Napier's police report, when Jackson was first asked about the robbery he denied any involvement. Later, he said that he and Hopes had been hanging at Martin's Drive Inn, a popular East­side hangout, when Barrs and his wife rolled up in Barrs' 1961 Ford Falcon. Barrs complained about not having money and suggested the foursome commit a robbery, Jackson first told police. Jackson's only involvement was to drive the group – in a gold car that belonged to Hopes, he said – and he remained outside while Hopes, Barrs, and his wife went into the store. (Jackson's description of Hopes' car conflicts with Yura's statement to police just after the robbery that the car she saw was actually two-toned, red and white.) After the shot was fired the three fled, Jackson said, and headed north on I-35.

After additional questioning, Jackson changed his story to say that Hopes had remained in the car and that he, Barrs, and Betty went into the store, and that Betty carried a .22-caliber pistol while Barrs wielded the .38 that fired the errant shot. In that retelling, Jackson said he made off with a total of $700 and didn't mention the escape route.

On the stand, Jackson's story morphed once again. This time he said there were about three people in the store during the robbery, and that once he and the Barrs were inside, Ronnie Barrs ushered everyone behind the meat counter, where he made them all lie down. The trio stayed together the entire time they were inside, he said, and all three of them went to the manager's booth together to get the cash. No one was in the booth at the time, he said. They left by speeding off north on I-35, with Hopes behind the wheel.

Jackson's various recorded accounts of the crime are not only internally inconsistent, but strikingly, none of the details from any of his three confessions actually match the testimony of the other eyewitnesses.

For example, Ken Dorman was shopping at the Minimax that night, stepped out just before the robbery took place, and turned back to get something else when he heard the gunshot. He saw a black man with a gun and watched through the windows as the customers and employees inside moved away from the checkout area toward the back of the store. From his car, Dorman saw three people leave the store, get into a car, and drive north on Cameron Road. Dorman spotted a patrolman pulling into the Minimax parking lot. "I flagged him down and I told him at that time that the car had just left and that if he wanted to, we could see if we could stop them because they were going on Cameron Road," he testified. The cop declined to do so.

Although he'd gotten a long look at the fleeing robbers, Dorman was unable to identify any suspects for the police, despite reviewing a live six-man lineup that included both Jack­son and Hopes, and also police mug shots. "I was never shown any pictures of the people in question," he testified at Barrs' trial.

"In fact, you have not identified anyone?" one of Barrs' lawyers asked. "No."

Contaminated Testimony

Indeed, from the record, none of the eyewitnesses was able to give much of a description of the robbers, though they agreed that there were three of them – two men and a woman – and that they were black. One of the men was described, generally, as tall, the other as short and stocky. The woman was described only as thin; one employee said she'd been wearing bell-bottoms and a halter top. Even Henning, the assistant manager who had retrieved money from the safe, was unable to provide police a description, and he was subsequently unable to identify any suspects from mug shots. He was not called as a witness by either the prosecution or the defense. (Of the nearly two dozen people inside the store, the state called just seven to testify; Barrs' defense called only one, a woman who said she really didn't see anything.)

There was a dearth of usable information to help identify the culprits, and the police report chronicling the investigation is thin and disjointed. There are no diagrams or photos of the store or of the evidence – a deficiency that Napier, the lead investigator who retired in 1995, noticed after reviewing the police report at the Chronicle's request. "That's one of the problems," he said. "I wish we would've had photographs of the building itself, or at least a diagram." (He couldn't recall if such things were once part of the file.)

Barrs' name first appears in the report nine days after the robbery. On July 21, 1973, a homicide investigator told Napier that while interrogating 17-year-old Marshall Hugo Grant about his involvement in a string of armed robberies, the kid said that he knew who was involved in the Minimax robbery and named Jackson, Hopes, Barrs, and Hopes' then-wife, Marilyn. (Grant, currently in the state's prison psychiatric unit where he is serving a 33-year sentence for injury to a disabled person, did not respond to a letter requesting information.) The same day, Napier brought Yura to the police station to review mug shots, including Jackson's. "She picked the photograph of Andrew Lee Jackson as being the one that looked most like the shorter of the two subjects she saw inside the store," Napier wrote. "However, she stated that she could not make a positive identification based on that photograph."

Napier tried at least two more times to see if Yura could identify the robbers, and at trial, the string of witness IDs of Barrs, however tentative, must have had a cumulative impact. Ultimately, Yura testified that Barrs was the tall man who'd robbed the store. She added that Barrs had come back to the storeroom to tell the employees and customers to stay put, and supposedly said, "Don't any of you motherfuckers move or I'll kill you." (Barrs' attorneys warily noted at trial that it was the first time Yura ever recalled that interaction.) Rodney Matthews, a cashier, also testified that Barrs had come to the back and pointed a gun; John Montgomery testified that he was pretty sure it was Barrs who'd hit him. Montgomery's dad, Charles, who'd arrived at the store just as the robbery was concluding, said that he was pretty sure it was Barrs he'd seen across the parking lot, walking by himself away from the front of the store. Finally, Ignacio Covarrubias said he wasn't positive but that Barrs looked a lot like the man who'd come to the back of the store waving a gun.

Yet none of the IDs were firm, and Barrs believes that it was Napier's influence over the witnesses that had them finger him even tentatively. The IDs were suggested to the witnesses, Barrs recalls. "That's the way it was all during my trial. They went from that to an identification."

The trial transcripts appear to confirm Barrs' suspicions. John Montgomery, Yura, and Matthews were each shown multiple photo lineups, and when they were unable to choose photos, they said, Napier told them to choose someone that looked most like the suspects they remembered. "I didn't recognize any," Yura said during a pretrial hearing of a photo spread Napier brought to her workplace. "He laid [the photos] out and said, 'Well, if this could have been any of them, could you tell me which one?' And I picked out two pictures."

Barrs was paroled from prison in November 1972, just nine months before the robbery of the Minimax at Cameron Village.
Barrs was paroled from prison in November 1972, just nine months before the robbery of the Minimax at Cameron Village. (Bottom photo by Jana Birchum)

"All right. Now, were the two pictures that you picked out two of the men who were in that store, or do you know?" Barrs' attorney asked. "Well, now, [Napier] said that he thinks these were the ones that [the police] picked up."

The record shows that Napier either confirmed or suggested that Barrs was the right suspect to at least Montgomery and Matthews. Indeed, during the pretrial hearing, Napier said he'd done just that when asked whether he'd let Matthews know that he believed Barrs was one of the robbers. "I don't think there was any doubt in [Matthews'] mind that it was my opinion that Ronnie Barrs was involved," Napier said. Although Barrs' attorneys, including former criminal defense lawyer Keith Kisner, who had only recently graduated from law school, tried to have the eyewitness statement suppressed, Judge Tom Blackwell allowed the IDs to be presented to the jury.

That was a mistake, says Hampton. Barrs' case is "a failure of the courts," he says, and should have been overturned long before now, based on an insufficiency of evidence – the only evidence linking Barrs to the crime are Jackson's inconsistent confessions and the tentative IDs made by witnesses who said they'd been encouraged to think they'd fingered the right person. "The suggestion of an ID, that is a textbook example of exactly the way not to ID someone," he said.

That is indeed the case, says Roy Malpass, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he is a memory researcher and a leading expert in eyewitness identification. Malpass reviewed pretrial testimony regarding the eyewitness IDs made in the Barrs case. "Napier appears to have communicated to the witnesses who he thought was the offender, and that is a serious procedural mistake," he said. "It's not just giving [the witnesses] feedback; it's letting them know" who police believe is responsible – and that's powerful. Malpass said it's difficult to know how Napier's lineups and photo arrays were composed because so little documentation is available. But he noted that at least in Yura's case, more than one suspect was included in each selection of photos, and that is also a poor practice. "In a conventional lineup, there is a one-in-six chance of wrongful identification. That's the American standard of risk to innocent people," he said. "It's rolling one die. It's a game of chance."

If a witness is made to feel that he or she must select somebody – as in Barrs' case, where witnesses reported they were told to select the person that most resembled the person they saw – there is at least a one-in-six probability he or she will get it wrong. Done as Napier did it, "he can make it so he has more than a one-in-six chance; he can make it so there is more than one suspect – even make it so that everybody is a suspect," Malpass said. "So, given the identification procedures in this case, it's very likely that one of the suspects will be on trial, whether or not they're guilty."

Malpass emphasizes that he cannot tell whether a witness' selection in a particular case was right or wrong. But he can explain what techniques are more reliable for using in eyewitness identification. His conclusion on Barrs' case? "The eyewitness evidence in this case is so contaminated by police actions that I cannot imagine anyone in the criminal justice system these days would give it any credibility."

A Long Time Ago

Even Napier has no doubt that were he investigating this case today, several things would be different. There would be many photos taken, for one thing, and the report would be beefier – Napier notes that he can't even tell whether the police recovered the .38 used in the crime (the report is completely unclear), and if so, whether there was any ballistics testing. "From reading [the report] I couldn't tell if there was enough physical evidence, with the bullet itself, that might've been helpful," Napier said. "I can't tell in there either, and I can't remember." As for dealing with the witnesses, Napier said police always tried to present "similar looking people" in photo lineups, but as far as the composition of the lineups in the Barrs case, he doesn't remember.

That witnesses were sometimes inconsistent or offered few details at all doesn't surprise Napier. "That was always one of the hardest things. Very few people that are involved as the victim of a crime or the witness to a crime can really be that specific about what they saw or what they think they saw," he said. "And in a lot of cases, that's what you depend on more than anything else." He speculates that the changes in Jackson's story – from confession to confession to testimony – might have had to do with "drug involvement." But Napier still doesn't know why Jackson would implicate Barrs in the crime if Barrs wasn't there. "I was trying to think, what purpose would it be for these guys to implicate Ronnie if he wasn't involved? How would it serve them? And I don't see that it would have, but I cannot recall if they made any deal with the District Attorney's Office."

In 1964, when Napier joined the department, there was no air conditioning in the bare-bones Plymouth Belvederes that the cops drove on patrol. Most of the streets in East Austin were unpaved, which meant, especially in the summer, that Napier would leave his patrol shift covered in a dirty shade of gray. Over the years, Napier earned a reputation for being a straight-shooter – a guy you liked or didn't but who would always call 'em like he saw 'em – a reputation no doubt enhanced by the 12 years he spent in APD's Internal Affairs. "I'll tell you, my gut feeling is that Ronnie was there and he was involved. Based on what I read and what little I can actually remember," he said. "But you know, who knows?" Napier concluded. "Hell, that's been a long time ago."

What Is Whispered

Whether Jackson made a deal with the D.A.'s Office in exchange for his testimony is also unknown. When asked about it on the stand by Barrs' attorney Keith Kisner, Jackson denied it. Kisner pushed, but Jackson wouldn't budge. Yet Kisner recalls now that – although he'd been in jail for months before testifying – after he took the stand, Jackson walked out of the jail a free man. "I asked him if he had a deal with the prosecution, and he said no, he hadn't, but he had been in jail for a while and was let out that afternoon," Kisner said.

Yet what hurt Barrs most, Kisner said, was his own testimony. What seems to have cut the deepest against him was his inability to remember what movie he'd been watching on TV July 12, 1973, at the exact time of the robbery. In court, Barrs said that he'd actually been home that night, babysitting for Betty's son. Betty's mother had had a heart attack that day, and she needed to be at the hospital – that was the alibi that likely kept Betty from even being indicted. Barrs said that he had stayed home with 9-year-old Terry; the two had sandwiches for dinner and then settled in to watch a Western called Waco. As it turned out, that wasn't the movie on that night – it was Damn Yankees, which Barrs now insists he had also watched. Waco showed on a Thursday evening, but not until three weeks later. Barrs said he simply confused the two days.

There was also the fact that Barrs had been to prison before, for three years on an armed robbery beef. He was paroled just nine months before the Minimax robbery. In that case, Barrs said, he was set up for being an accomplice to a robbery of a taxi driver that he didn't even know would take place. Indeed, he said the cabdriver actually testified in his defense, but that was not enough to persuade a judge that Barrs should not be convicted.

Perhaps it was the combination of all these things. But Barrs' jury simply did not believe his story – even though the hospital alibi apparently cleared Betty. She came to court to testify on Barrs' behalf, but because she had inadvertently remained in the courtroom while Barrs was on the stand – in violation of the rule that keeps potential witnesses from hearing one another's testimony – Judge Blackwell would not allow her account of where her family was on the evening of the robbery. Barrs' attorney argued on appeal that Betty's testimony should have been allowed, to no avail.

As far as the courts are concerned, Barrs' case is over and done. Barrs remains determined. There are problems with Jackson's confessions that no one ever bothered to point out, he says, like Jackson's account of meeting up with Barrs on the evening of the robbery. According to Jackson, Barrs was driving a 1961 Ford Falcon that night, but that wasn't possible; Barrs didn't have a car in 1973. He had owned a Falcon in the late Sixties, but that car had been repossessed in 1969. And although the police report notes that fingerprints were collected from the scene that night, the prints recovered did not match Barrs, Jackson, or Hopes.

There are other clues too, more difficult to follow. On a recent morning, Barrs pulled from a stack of papers a soft and worn envelope postmarked December 1978. Inside is a letter to Barrs, apparently written and signed by Jackson's mother, Mary. She writes that she had tried to talk to Lee Lee and had even read Barrs' letter to him, "and he said he just didn't want to hear it. I wish I could help, I would. ... I am sorry about all this, I do hope something will help you."

Barrs says Mary Jackson's letter was written in response to one he wrote that questioned why Jackson had lied about Barrs' involvement in the Minimax robbery; he believes her letter strongly suggests that Jackson knew what he had done. When asked recently about the letter, Mary Jackson claimed she did not remember getting any letter from Barrs and denied writing the letter to him – although her other son, Donnie, present when she read a copy of the letter in her Eastside living room, confirmed that it was indeed in his mother's hand. Lee Lee Jackson died nearly 17 years ago and took whatever secrets he might have held with him to the grave.

Barrs remains undeterred. During a recent interview, Marilyn Hopes, ex-wife of James Hopes, who also did time for the 1973 crime, said that not long after Hopes was sent to prison she confronted Jackson about his story of what happened that night. "He admitted to me that he did the robbery," she recalled – and further admitted that he had lied about Barrs and Hopes' involvement. "He came straight out and told me that," she said. "I asked him ... 'Why would you do your friend like that?' He didn't want to go to jail." This is the kind of lead that keeps Barrs going – and is the sort of information that might eventually help to clear his name, says defense attorney Hampton.

At least it's a start. Despite the odds, Barrs remains optimistic that he will discover the truth about the 1973 Minimax robbery – a truth that he says will finally clear his name. Barrs says that's been his single goal since January 1974, when he went on trial. "I was sitting in the courtroom with a Bible," he recalled recently. "I was holding this Bible; I was praying; I was thinking, 'There has got to be a supreme judge somewhere, and he has got to look down here on me and tell me what is going on because this isn't right what is going on here.' And I was squeezing that Bible and a voice said, like, 'release that Bible.' And I took my hands up and released it and it fell open," he says, releasing his hands as he remembers the moment. The book opened to the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 10, Verse 26. Barrs paraphrases: "It said there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed; there is nothing hid that shall not be made known." He concludes, "What is whispered shall be proclaimed from the housetop."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Ronnie Barrs, Roger Napier, Andrew Lee Jackson, Keith Kisner, Keith Hampton, Roy Malpass

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