Criminal Law

Did Missouri Just Execute an Innocent Man? Very Likely.

One death in the large daily death toll from yesterday stands out because it did not come as result of the covid-19 virus. Instead, Walter Barton’s death came shortly after 6 p.m. when the State of Missouri injected him with a lethal dose of the drug pentobarbital at the Missouri Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. (What exactly are they diagnosing and correcting there one wonders). Barton was the first person to be executed in Missouri in 2020.

Barton never wavered in maintaining his innocence from the date of his arrest in 1991 to 6:13pm yesterday when his heart was stopped by the State. The crime he was killed for was certainly violent and horrific:

Gladys Kuehler, 81, lived in a mobile home that she owned at Riverview Mobile Home Park in Ozark. She was found by Barton; her granddaughter and family friend who had gone to check in on her. An autopsy conducted on the victim revealed that she was stabbed well in excess of 50 times. Kuehler was stabbed in both eyes, her chest, neck, abdomen, left hand, left arm and 23 times in her back. Examiners concluded that Kuehler suffered a blunt force injury to her head, and that Kuehler had was sexually assaulted.

Why was Barton Arrested?

On the morning of Oct. 9, 1991, mobile home park resident Carol Horton last saw Kuehler at 11 a.m. Kuehler was sitting on a daybed in her living room, and Horton shopped for Kuehler and retrieved her mail that day. Barton reportedly visited Horton’s trailer between noon and 2 p.m. Barton was described to be in a “happy-go-lucky” mood. He told Horton he was going to Kuehler’s residence to see if she would lend him $20. At the time, Barton was reportedly living in his car. Barton allegedly returned about 15 minutes later. During the 2 o’clock hour, Kuehler reportedly had a number of visitors at her trailer.

Kuehler’s granddaughter, called her grandmother at 4 p.m. When she did not get an answer on the telephone, she went to Kuehler’s trailer. Seeing the lights off, she left to get help. She got a family friend and they requested help from Barton to knock on Kuehler’s door again. When there was no answer, they drove to the downtown square and flagged down a police officer. The police called a locksmith, who unlocked the trailer. As the locksmith worked, the police officer “left to take another call.” When the door was unlocked and open, The two women and Barton entered the trailer. Kuehler’s granddaughter found her body and Barton pulled her off of her. One of the victim’s checks was missing from the checkbook and it was found a few days later by the side of the road. It was for $50 and was written to Barton.

Barton was arrested based on that evidence and on his admission that he was in Kuehler’s trailer at 330pm when he answered a call on her phone. Police noticed that he had a spot of blood on his shoulder and arm. He explained that came from when he pulled the victim’s granddaughter away from her. The victim’s granddaughter confirmed that to police in a written statement.

Nevertheless, the police proceeded on the theory that the blood came from the killing. They got the granddaugther to change her story and say that Barton never touched her. (She later once again recanted and returned to her original statement that Barton did get blood on his shirt when he pulled her off the victim’s body). The State also called in a blood stain expert who testified that the spots were consistent with the killing even though the victim had been so violently and repeatedly stabbed so that there was likely lots of blood on the perpetrator. The only other physical evidence in the case — hair found on the victim’s torso and biological material underneath her fingernails — did not match Barton.

Walter Barton

Took five trials to get a conviction

Getting a conviction on this evidence was no easy task even in Missouri.

Barton’s first trial ended in a mistrial and his second in a hung jury. He was convicted at his next trial, but the conviction was overturned because the defense counsel’s closing argument, which pointed out serious discrepancies in the timeline of the case, had been restricted during the trial. At his fourth trial, Barton was convicted but, again, his conviction was overturned after the prosecution was found to have engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, including the use of perjured testimony from a jailhouse informant. This same informant again testified falsely at Barton’s fifth trial in 2006  at which he was convicted and sentenced to death.  At both trials, the informant lied about her criminal record saying she had been convicted 6 times previously when in fact she had been convicted 29 times previously, many of them for fraud. She had also lied about not getting a deal in exchange for her testimony – in fact the DA had promised to drop her pending charges if she testified.

The Missouri Supreme Court, through the appeals process, nevertheless eventually affirmed the sentence in 2007, in 2014, in 2016 and again in 2020. One Missouri Supreme Court judge decried the state’s maneuvering in the case, writing in 2007 that “Barton has gone to trial five separate times for the same offense, and prosecutorial misconduct has plagued the trials from the outset and has allowed the state opportunities to bolster its evidence. From the first mistrial in 1993 through three completed trials, post-conviction proceedings, multiple appeals, there is a trail of mishaps and misdeeds that, taken together, reflect poorly on the criminal justice system. The evidence that links Barton to the crime is not particularly compelling.””

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch denied his lawyer’s request for a stay of execution. One of the arguments was that Missouri Governor Michael Parsons had been considering a clemency plea from the lawyers but had denied it and that he could not review it thoroughly now due to the covid-19 pandemic.

New forensic evidence sheds more light on the case

Since his conviction, blood splatter stain evidence has been added to the list of forensic junk science that has been largely debunked. Along with bite marks and bullet composition analysis, blood splatter has been shown to rarely actually point to any meaningful evidence. Nearly half of all DNA exonerations involve convictions based on flawed, fake or misapplied forensic evidence.

The unit that convicted Barton is also responsible for the wrongful conviction of at least four other innocent men. 

Barton’s case was prosecuted by a special unit in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which prosecutes capital cases throughout the state alongside or, at times, instead of the local county prosecutor’s office. This same office was responsible for prosecuting Joshua Kezer, Dale Helmig, Mark Woodworth, and Brad Jennings all of whom were later exonerated. In total, these men spent nearly 60 years wrongfully incarcerated and all faced the death penalty. Judges ruled that the prosecutors from this unit had “repeatedly misstated the evidence,” knowingly presented false testimony, and failed to disclose evidence in their cases.

Killing is apparently an essential State function in Missouri

No other state is seeking to execute individuals at this time due to concerns that executions cannot be carried out risking the spread of the virus. So far, Ohio , Tennessee and Texas have all postponed executions.

The pandemic also calls into question Mr. Barton’s ability to receive due process as much of the work that should have been done in his defense — including interviewing new witnesses, reinvestigating disputed evidence, and filing new legal claims — was put on hold due to the pandemic and subsequent shutdown.

But Missouri couldn’t wait and Judge Gorsuch found no compelling need to intervene with the State’s right to kill a person for killing a person.

What was the rush? Barton finally had attorneys on his side who were getting things done and uncovering new evidence even after all these years. For crying out loud, it took almost 30 years, five trials, and numerous appeals to get a conviction to stick.

 In his final statement released prior to his execution, Barton said: “I, Walter “Arkie” Barton, am innocent and they are executing an innocent man!!”

Rest in peace Walter Barton. Shame on the State of Missouri for allowing this to happen.

Follow me on Twitter @oscarmichelen

2 replies on “Did Missouri Just Execute an Innocent Man? Very Likely.”

“Since his conviction, blood splatter stain evidence has been added to the list of forensic junk science that has been largely debunked.”

Excuse me but this is what Dexter relied on to solve murders.

“ Judge Gorsuch found no compelling need to intervene with the State’s right to kill a person for killing a person.”

Fake Merrick “you can have your trucker job and freeze to death or your life and no job” Garland strikes again.

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