Heard on the Hill

How the murder of a young Senate aide ushered in the ‘tough on crime’ era

After Tom Barnes died of a gunshot wound to the head in the ’90s, his boss called for the death penalty. D.C. is still feeling the aftershocks

A poster tacked up on Acker Street in Northeast pleads for information leading to Tom Barnes’ killer in 1992. (Maureen Keating/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The worst thing Toof Brown has ever had to do is call the parents of Tom Barnes and tell them their son had been shot in the head.

On Saturday, Jan. 11, 1992, Barnes noticed he was low on coffee. So the 25-year-old Senate staffer put on his duck boots, left his rowhouse on Acker Street and headed to a local corner market. He’d lived in the neighborhood, about six blocks east of the U.S. Capitol, for roughly two months.

When Barnes turned the corner onto Seventh Street, he was approached by a group of African American teenagers. One of them threatened to “bust a cap” in Barnes if he didn’t hand over some money. Barnes blew them off, but as he walked away, Edward Evans pulled a handgun and shot him behind the left ear. He was in a coma for four days before dying in Washington Hospital Center’s trauma unit.

Barnes, a fair-skinned, blond college fraternity president and actual choir boy from Alabama, had been working for his home state senator Richard Shelby, a family friend, for a little more than a year. Co-workers described him as “All-American.”

“It sent shockwaves through my office,” says Shelby, who still thinks about it decades later. “He had a wonderful life ahead of him, a lot of promise. What a senseless killing.”

The senator, then in his first term and up for reelection, offered a $10,000 reward for information about the murder and called on D.C. to institute the death penalty.

What followed would set off a racial firestorm and further deepen the rift between Capitol Hill lawmakers and a city largely beholden to federal authority. Shelby’s push for the death penalty would spark anger among D.C. residents already resentful of outsiders controlling the District’s affairs. And the violent crimes unfolding in the streets around Congress would shape its legislation, including one of the toughest crime and sentencing measures in history. That 1994 law would in turn lead to the mass incarceration of many young black lives, a consequence that America is still grappling with today.

But for Brown, a friend, roommate and co-worker of Barnes, the murder didn’t represent a cultural shift. It was something more immediate and personal, rather than a watershed moment for the city.

“After he was shot, my feeling about being on Capitol Hill was completely different,” he says. “It was more stressful just to be there.” There were times when he thought people were following him, and he would switch up his movements or turn around and stare them down.

Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., Elizabeth Gardener, Legislative Assistant to Sen. Howell Heflin, friend and co-workers of Tom Barnes embraces Hope Green, LC to Sen. Richard Shelby after service. Lots of teary eyes during Tom Barnes memorial on Jan. 23, 1992. (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Friends and congressional co-workers embrace after a memorial service for Barnes on Capitol Hill on Jan. 23, 1992. The murder would shape federal crime policy for decades to come. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Barnes was killed just 11 days after D.C. closed out its deadliest year ever, with more than 480 homicides, as chronicled in Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood’s seminal “Dream City.” And while violent crime took place mostly in other areas of the city, Barnes was far from the only Hill denizen to be victimized that year. An aspiring congressional aide named Abbey McCloskey was sexually assaulted and murdered in a Capitol Hill alley. In the spring of 1992, Michigan Rep. Bob Traxler was clubbed unconscious and robbed of $8 while walking to his car.

In the aftermath of the killing, Shelby would successfully force a death penalty referendum in D.C. that was roundly rejected by voters in the nation’s capital. “There is something approaching rage among the voters of the District about their disempowerment, about Congress forcing this on us,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton told The New York Times ahead of the vote. “When you mandate a death penalty vote, you engage that issue directly.”

The referendum’s proponents were accused by some of playing to their constituencies back home instead of doing what was best for D.C.

“They didn’t really understand ‘why,’ they only knew ‘what,’” says Paul Duggan, who’s covered crime and life in D.C. for The Washington Post since 1987. “It was the product of a lot of things, mainly poverty. They saw a majority black city and all these murders … they saw cause and effect there, and it was just as simple as that to them,” he says of lawmakers calling for the death penalty.

Norton still recalls barnstorming the District to whip up opposition to the measure, going on radio shows to give a fact a day about why the penalty shouldn’t be imposed. Residents voted 2-1 against the referendum. “This was really one of the most important things I’ve ever done,” says Norton. “I can’t claim that that’s what turned it, because I don’t think the residents supported the death penalty, but I think there was huge fear.”

Shelby doesn’t regret his death penalty effort. “Of course some people argue that it doesn’t deter people,” he says. “I think it does. You can argue it both ways. But if it doesn’t deter them, it certainly punishes them.” During the debate over the 1994 crime bill, lawmakers say they felt unsafe in the city. Joe Biden, the main author of the Senate version, told the Los Angeles Times that he was afraid to use the ATM after dark and that his wife could no longer shop on Friday nights.

Sen. Richard Shelby, D-Ala., speaks at Tom Barnes memorial service in the Capitol Hill, at right, photo of staffer Tom Barnes and his father. 1992 (Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, here at a memorial service for Tom Barnes in 1992, still remembers the murder as if it were yesterday. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The crime bill, known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, would later become infamous for its role in the mass incarceration of black men. The measure expanded the death penalty and created a controversial “three strikes” policy, in which violent offenders with two previous convictions would get mandatory life sentences.

Between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America jumped from about 500,000 to more than 2.2 million, according to the NAACP. Blacks make up 12.5 percent of illicit drug users, but account for 29 percent of those arrested for drug offenses and 33 percent of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.

But America is rethinking its missteps in the war on drugs. The First Step Act, a bipartisan criminal justice overhaul measure passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in December, aims to lower the number of federal inmates by changing sentencing laws and to fight recidivism by offering more support for prisoners returning to society.

The myth of Chocolate City

According to Norton, D.C.’s majority black population is an aberration in the District’s history, an interlude in a saga of white flight, middle class black flight and ongoing gentrification.

“Bear in mind I’m a third-generation Washingtonian,” says Norton. “I haven’t been here 218 years, but most of that time it has been a majority white city.”

The story of D.C. goes something like this.

Post World War II-era government housing programs helped fuel the suburban boom of middle-class white families. As whites fled to Virginia and Maryland, middle-class black families began taking their place in formerly all-white D.C. neighborhoods. The city’s black population grew from 35 percent in 1950 to 54 percent over the course of the decade.

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Forced to comply with the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, striking down segregation, even more whites hightailed it to the suburbs, says Duggan. Racist housing covenants prevented blacks seeking more space from joining them, he says. But when housing laws liberalized, many middle-class blacks fled as well. What was left was a poor, mostly black population and a shrinking tax base, colliding with a higher demand for more social services. Once you add in the crack epidemic and the accompanying violence and death, you have a five-alarm blaze of a crisis. The city’s homicide rate in the 1980s and 1990s would earn it the infamous title of “murder capital” of the country.

“People who live here now have no conception of what the city was like in the early ’90s,” says Duggan.

These were the structural forces colliding that fateful day in January.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 29: Acker Place, NE, is photographed on Monday, April 29, 2019. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Today, Acker Street is Acker Place, and gentrification has transformed the neighborhood. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A walk down Acker Street

After years of financial mismanagement, Congress voted to place the city in receivership under the D.C. Financial Control Board — five people with the authority to override decisions by the mayor and city council. It was a move supported by Norton.

The board disbanded in September 2001, following four straight years of balanced budgets. Much of the economic development currently on display sprang from receivership, according to Duggan.

At the time of Barnes’ killing, Acker Street was what real estate agents euphemistically referred to as “transitioning.” Edwards, who received 26 years to life for the murder, was also a resident there, along with his 16-year-old sister LaShawn, who’d been found dead in Rock Creek Park the previous spring.

I used to live on that street, too, when I worked as an aide at the Capitol. I turned the same corner on Seventh Street that Tom Barnes did to get coffee at the 7/11 on the way to work.

Whatever changes have remade Acker Street (now Place), Congress has both felt and driven the turmoil. Its role in the gentrification of D.C. is underexplored.

Meanwhile, the forces that converged that winter day in January 1992 are still at work. Look no further than condo residents in Shaw who threatened to sue a Metro PCS store over the loud go-go music (a D.C. staple) emanating from its speakers, a tradition predating the arrival of Shaw’s luxury apartments. Or the ongoing controversy over (mostly white) residents in the Howard University neighborhood who treat the historically black school’s famous quad as a place for their dogs to frolic and pee.

D.C. is much whiter and affluent now. On the corner of 14th and U Street, where Stokely Carmichael once instigated a riot following Martin Luther King’s assassination, sits a Lululemon, SoulCycle and a place that serves $15 margaritas.

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