Nation's first execution during coronavirus pandemic involves man claiming innocence

Erik Ortiz
·4 min read

Missouri on Tuesday plans to conduct the nation's first execution since the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic in early March, a decision that comes amid renewed questions over the inmate's guilt.

Three jurors who convicted Walter Barton in the 1991 murder of a mobile home operator have said in affidavits that they now have doubts about the verdict, The Kansas City Star reported this week.

"It is a nightmare because the original case against Mr. Barton was a close one," his attorney, Frederick Duchardt Jr., told the newspaper. "It is a worse nightmare because evidence, never heard by the jury who rendered judgment, undermines the key evidence used to convict."

Image: Walter Barton. (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP file)
Image: Walter Barton. (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP file)

Barton, 64, has been tried five times for the murder, maintaining his innocence throughout. His first two trials ended in mistrials, both in 1993. The following year, a jury convicted him and sentenced him to death, but the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the verdict because of how the judge restricted the defense team's closing arguments.

Barton was convicted again in 1998 and given the death penalty. But a new trial was ordered, in part, after it was discovered that the state had failed to correct perjured testimony.

His fifth trial in 2006 also ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence. The following year, the state Supreme Court narrowly upheld the decision in a 4-3 ruling, and Barton's subsequent appeals have been unsuccessful.

Prosecutors said Barton knew the victim, Gladys Kuehler, 81, who operated a mobile home park in Ozark, Missouri. Barton, who had been living out of his car, was reportedly visiting Kuehler's granddaughter and a neighbor at the property on the night Kuehler was beaten, sexually assaulted and stabbed 52 times.

Barton previously lived at the mobile home park but had been evicted about two weeks before the killing, according to local news reports. Kuehler's granddaughter and her neighbor found the body.

Police at the time noted apparent bloodstains on Barton's clothing, which Barton said came from him having pulled Kuehler's granddaughter off the body. At Barton's trial, a blood spatter analyst said three small stains on his clothing would have come from the impact of a knife.

At the heart of the case has been whether the prosecution's blood spatter evidence — a form of forensic analysis that has been questioned in recent years over its accuracy — was properly countered by Barton's defense team at his 2006 trial.

Since then, Barton's current defense team ordered an independent bloodstain analysis. That examiner found that the small bloodstains on Barton's clothing were consistent with his version of events that night and that the actual killer's clothes would have been soaked in blood, given the victim's wounds.

Over the past couple of months, three former jurors signed affidavits agreeing that the new bloodstain-pattern analysis was "compelling," Duchardt said, according to The Star. Those jurors also said that during deliberations, there were disagreements over whether to convict Barton, and if there was analysis presented like the one they reviewed more recently, it would have played a part in the deliberations.

One of the jurors, the foreman at the trial, added that he would have been "uncomfortable" supporting the death penalty if the defense had presented such analysis during testimony, Duchardt added.

There have been renewed calls and petitions from groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union for Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, to intervene in the planned lethal injection. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, but told The Associated Press that the office anticipates that the execution will go on.

The Missouri Attorney General's Office earlier this month asked a court to reject Barton's petition over his impending execution after the state Supreme Court already denied his request for a hearing last month. The court said the new analysis and other claims made by his defense team do "not show actual innocence by a preponderance of the evidence ... nor does it rise to the level of clear and convincing evidence required for a freestanding claim of actual innocence."

An appeal is still pending in federal court.

Barton's execution would be the first in the U.S. since March 5, when Alabama inmate Nate Woods was executed for his role in the fatal shootings of three Birmingham police officers in 2004. That case prompted a last-minute push by supporters who said it was mishandled and affected by longstanding racial biases in the criminal justice system. Woods was black.

Barton's execution is scheduled for a prison in Bonne Terre, where there have not been any confirmed cases of the coronavirus, according to the AP. The spread of the virus in prisons has added another layer in how his death must be handled.

The decision to proceed with the execution has drawn scrutiny from anti-capital punishment groups who note that prison visits remain halted at Missouri's correctional facilities through June.

Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann told the AP that those entering the prison will have to submit to temperature checks and will be offered face coverings. Duchardt said that some of Barton's supporters will be able to attend, and witnesses will be divided into three rooms.