Office of the Attorney General News Release Archive

Thursday, September 9, 1999


Willis J. Barnes Scheduled to be Executed

AUSTIN - Texas Attorney General John Cornyn offers the following information on Willis J. Barnes who is scheduled to be executed after 6 p.m., Friday, September 10th.


In February 1988, 84-year-old Helen Greb, a widow since 1970, resided in Houston, Texas, at a home she had lived in for 33 years. Despite her advanced age, Ms. Greb was quite active and exercised regularly. On February 6th, Lee Greb, Ms. Greb's adult grandson, visited with his grandmother and arranged for her to have lunch with his family on February 14th. The two planned that Lee would call Ms. Greb on the morning of the 14th then would come pick her up.

Faithful to this plan, Lee called his grandmother on the 14th at approximately 9:30 a.m. When she did not answer, he called again an hour later. Again, he received no answer then waited another hour and called a third time. Upon failing to receive an answer the third time, Lee telephoned an aunt and uncle, and discovered that she was not at their home. Becoming increasingly concerned, Lee drove to his grandmother's home, arriving at approximately 12:30 p.m. Lee knocked on the front door of the home then his grandmother's bedroom window. He received no response at either location. Lee then walked to the back of the house and noticed that a screen was off one of the windows and that the window was partially open. Lee drove to a convenience store where he telephoned his aunt and asked her to assist him in gaining entry into the home.

A short time later, Lee's aunt, uncle, and their daughter, arrived at Ms. Greb's residence. Upon opening the front door, they discovered the living room was in complete disarray. They made a path through overturned furniture and debris to Ms. Greb's bedroom, where they discovered that it too had been ransacked and that clothes had been stacked onto Ms. Greb's bed. Lee's aunt slipped her hand under the clothes and bed covers and felt what she thought was a cold leg. Lee and his aunt rapidly removed the pile of clothing and discovered Ms. Greb's face. Paramedics were called from a neighbor's home because Ms. Greb's telephone line was not working.

A paramedic testified that Ms. Greb's nude body was discovered under stacks of clothes and other debris. She had a number of bruises all over her body, particularly around her neck. When the police arrived, they discovered a large pool of blood on the sheet beneath Ms. Greb's buttocks. Several blood smears were observed on the sheets, and Ms. Greb's body was bloated, indicating the early stages of decomposition.

An autopsy revealed hemorrhages around the eyes and eyelids, bruising on the neck, a broken hyoid bone, abrasions on the forehead, both sides of the face, on the jaw, the bridge of the nose, the chin, both knees, the back of the left elbow, the back of both hands, the front of the left leg, and the back of the right leg. The backbone and every rib in Ms. Greb's chest had been fractured. Ms. Greb had also been sexually assaulted. The medical examiner testified that all of these injuries occurred while the victim was alive and that the sexual assault was performed with a foreign object. The medical examiner determined that Ms. Greb had died as a result of strangulation and manual compression of the chest.

An inventory of Ms. Greb's home revealed that numerous items were missing, including two television sets, a wedding ring, and two firearms. The telephone cable had been cut where it fed into the house. A pick axe, which had wood splinters and paint on it consistent with that on the house, was found in the backyard. The lock on the kitchen window had been broken, pry marks were visible at the top and bottom of the window, the screen was off, and the window was standing open. Inside the window, the print of a tennis shoe was observed in the bottom of the kitchen sink.

The police later received information that Barnes had sold a television set and a rifle of Ms. Greb's to Robert Glen Davis. Davis was known to the police as dealing in stolen property, and sometimes provided the police with information on other crimes. Barnes had also given another of Ms. Greb's rifles to Davis as a gift. This information led to Barnes' arrest on February 17, 1988. Barnes later gave the police three written confessions and a videotaped confession.

In his first two confessions, Barnes said he entered Ms. Greb's home through an open front door and took some of her property, but denied seeing or killing her. In the third confession and the videotaped confession, Barnes said he entered Ms. Greb's home through the kitchen window at approximately 11:00 p.m. He claimed that as he walked through the home looking for something to steal, the nude victim confronted him in a dark hallway with a rifle in one hand and a can of mace in the other hand, and sprayed Barnes with the mace. A struggle ensued and Barnes claimed he knocked Ms. Greb to the floor, and she struck her head on the foot of the bed and lost consciousness. By this time, according to Barnes, he had taken the victim's mace and gun away from her. When Barnes later realized Ms. Greb was not breathing, he claimed he unsuccessfully performed mouth-to-mouth "respiration" on her. Barnes claimed he panicked, put the victim on the bed, put some clothes and other items on top of her, then left her home with some of her property. Barnes maintained he never intended to kill the victim.


In June 1988, Barnes was indicted for the intentional murder of Helen Greb in the course of committing and attempting to commit burglary. Barnes was tried before a jury upon a plea of not guilty. On March 23, 1989, the jury found him guilty of the capital offense. A separate punishment hearing ensued and the jury, in accordance with state law, sentenced Barnes to death.

Barnes' conviction and sentence of death were automatically appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which affirmed the conviction and sentence on September 22, 1993, and denied rehearing on November 3, 1993. On April 25, 1994, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari review.

On July 17, 1995, Barnes filed an application for state writ of habeas corpus in the convicting court. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court recommended that habeas relief be denied. On February 14, 1996, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied relief on the basis that the trial court's findings and conclusions were supported by the record. Barnes did not petition the Supreme Court for certiorari review.

In June 1996, Barnes proceeded into federal court, eventually filing a federal habeas petition in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division, in April 1997. The district court denied relief on April 30, 1998. On that same day, the district court denied Barnes a certificate of appealability. On November 9, 1998, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit similarly denied Barnes a certificate of appealability, thereby affirming the district court's denial of relief. On May 17, 1999, the Supreme Court denied certiorari review. A clemency petition is pending before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.


At the punishment phase of trial, the State presented evidence of a number of prior offenses committed by Barnes. In 1972, Barnes forcefully "raped" his 14-year-old sister-in-law. On November 9, 1982, a Houston police officer found Barnes hiding inside a building after he had apparently broken into the building and activated the security system. On the following day, Barnes pled guilty to a reduced charge of attempted burglary of a building and received a one-year sentence. Barnes was released from confinement in March 1983.

On November 20, 1983, Barnes was arrested while attempting to break into a window at the Houston home of an 84-year-old widow. Two days later, Barnes pled guilty to a reduced charge of criminal trespass and was sentenced to ninety days confinement. On December 19, 1983, after serving twenty seven days, Barnes was released from confinement.

On December 30, 1983, at approximately 11:30 p.m., Barnes cut the telephone line then broke into the Houston home a 73-year-old widow. Once inside the residence, Barnes savagely struck the victim across the forehead with a stick like object, knocking her to the ground. Barnes then threw a blanket over the victim's head, checked the victim for jewelry, then searched other portions of the house. After a short time, Barnes returned to the victim, dragged her into another room where he bound her hands and feet with a telephone cord. Again Barnes left the victim to search through the house. When he returned, Barnes informed the victim that he was going to have sex with her. Barnes then proceeded to brutally assault the victim. Several hours after Barnes had fled from the residence, the victim struggled to a neighbor's home and was thereafter taken to the hospital. The treating physician sutured a three-inch laceration on the victim's scalp then discovered a rip extending through the victim's vaginal wall almost into the abdominal cavity. Considering the nature of the injury and the force needed to inflict it, the physician was of the opinion that the woman had been sexually assaulted with a foreign object. The victim was hospitalized for twelve days and thereafter underwent psychiatric treatment for the emotional trauma she suffered. Barnes' fingerprints were found inside the home.

On March 18, 1984, George Judd returned to his Houston residence to discover that someone had entered his home by breaking a window. A televison set and jewelry were missing. Barnes' fingerprints were found inside the home. On April 5, 1984, Michael Dentler returned to his Houston residence to discover that his home had been burglarized. The intruder had also cut the telephone line leading into the home. On April 10, 1984, Barnes was arrested while exiting a broken window of another Houston residence. Barnes was in possession of a camera and jewelry from the residence and had moved a television set over to the window. On October 15, 1984, Barnes entered guilty pleas to these three burglaries, as well as a reduced charge of burglary from the December 30, 1983 burglary/sexual assault. Barnes received four thirty-year sentences for these offenses but was released onto parole in October 1987, after serving approximately three years. Barnes committed the present capital murder less than four months later.


There was no evidence of drug or alcohol use in connection with the instant offense.


09/14/99 William Prince Davis (Harris County)
09/21/99 Rickie Wayne Smith (Harris County)
10/12/99 Alvin Wayne Crane (Ochiltree County)
10/14/99 Jerry Walter McFadden (Upshur County)
10/21/99 Pedro Sosa (Atascosa County)
10/28/99 Domingo Cantu, Jr. (Dallas County)
11/17/99 John Michael Lamb (Hunt County)
12/08/99 David Martin Long (Dallas County)
01/13/00 Johnny Paul Penry (Polk County)


If this execution is carried out, it will be the 187th execution since executions resumed in Texas in December 1982 and the 23rd since General Cornyn took office.

This case has been handled by Assistant Attorney General Tommy Skaggs of the Attorney General's Capital Litigation Division.

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Contact Ted Delisi, Heather Browne, or Tom Kelley at (512) 463-2050