On September 21, 1996, 15-year-old Johnny Escalante was fatally shot once in the head during an outdoor party in a pasture outside of Gilmer, Texas.
Twenty-one-year-old Jason Barber was charged with first-degree murder after one of those in attendance at the party, William Shane Wood, told police that Barber fired the shot that killed Escalante.
Barber went on trial in Upshur County Criminal District Court in June 1997. The victim’s older brother, Gabriel Escalante, said he and his brother and four other friends drove to the site of the party after word spread that there was a fight involving other friends of theirs.
Escalante testified that by the time they arrived, their friends were gone and the fight was over, except for some name-calling and taunting. He said that as he backed the car out of the field, his headlights flashed on Wood and he was holding a revolver. Escalante said he then heard a shot and his brother was hit in the head.
Later, Escalante said he selected Wood’s photograph from a photo lineup as the man who fired the shot. Escalante, however, said Wood fired the shot into the air and that there was another gunshot immediately after.
Wood was facing unrelated charges and was granted immunity for his testimony. He told the jury that he didn’t have a gun at all. He said he saw Barber fire a revolver at Escalante’s car.
Another witness, Charles McWhorter II, who was on probation for a gun conviction, also testified under a grant of immunity. McWhorter said Wood did not have a gun.
An Upshur County sheriff’s deputy said that Barber at first denied shooting a gun during the party, but later admitted he had fired a pistol. The deputy testified that Barber claimed he got his revolver after the first shots were fired and only fired a warning shot into the air.
A crime lab analyst testified that Barber’s gun was the same caliber as the bullet that killed the victim, but that ballistics tests could not confirm that Barber’s gun actually fired the fatal bullet.
The defense called other witnesses who said they saw Wood with a gun that night. Barber testified and admitted firing a warning shot, but denied shooting at Escalante’s vehicle or even in the same general direction.
In June 1997, the jury convicted Barber of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Three years later, McWhorter came to the home of Barber’s father with a pistol that was wrapped in plastic. McWhorter said the gun was Wood’s gun, that Wood was carrying it the night of the murder and that it had been buried in a barn.
The gun was turned over to the prosecution and ballistics tests confirmed that the gun was the weapon that fired the bullet that killed the victim.
In July 2000, the prosecution filed a motion to vacate Barber’s conviction. The motion was granted, the charge was dismissed and Barber was released.
In 2001, Wood was convicted of murder for the shooting of Johnny Escalante and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
As of 2012, Barber had received nearly $90,000 in compensation from the state of Texas.
– Maurice Possley