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Missouri Set To Execute Walter Barton Tonight Despite Claims That He May Be Innocent

If the U.S. Supreme Court or the state’s governor doesn’t step in, Barton’s would be the first execution carried out in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Texas death chamber
Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

Tara Barton was 5 when her uncle, Walter Barton, was sentenced to die. Because she was so young, the details of his trial are fuzzy to her. But she did remember being told he was guilty of brutally murdering an elderly woman who managed a trailer park. After that, she “never really gave much thought to it,” she said. 

Fourteen years later, in February, Tara heard that Missouri had set a date to execute Walter. She’d never been close with her uncle; their only interactions came periodically when he would call her father on the telephone and she would jump on. Still, the news of his impending execution was jarring to Tara and her sister, Amanda Stewart, and they started researching his case. For years, Walter’s attorneys had filed appeals arguing that Walter is innocent, had been unfairly tried, and was sentenced to die on bad science. Though his first trial was in 1993, it took four more for Missouri to secure his death sentence, she learned. Tara was stunned by what she had read. “We didn’t realize he was innocent,” she told The Appeal last week. 

Despite the evidence suggesting that Walter may have been wrongfully convicted, Missouri is planning to execute him today at 6 p.m. local time. It’s scheduled to take place at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri. If the execution moves ahead, it will be the first in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shuttered the country, closing its death chambers.

Governor Mike Parson, who approved a gradual reopening of the state last month, has no plans to use his executive powers to halt Walter’s execution, which would be the 99th in Missouri in the modern death penalty era. A spokesperson for Parson told The Appeal on Monday that the governor “fully anticipates carrying out the court order and discharging our duties as prescribed by law.” 

Though the Missouri Department of Corrections has suspended visitation to its prisons until June 18, it says it has a plan in place to carry out a socially distanced execution. Along with screening and temperature checks of each witness, the agency plans to divide the nine witnesses who have said they will attend among three rooms, and provide them with cloth masks and hand sanitizer, a spokesperson told The Appeal in an email. 

Neither Tara nor her sister will attend; Tara said they could not get clearance in time. But they are still hoping they can influence Parson to halt the execution. Last week, they sent a letter to Parson urging a reprieve so their uncle’s case could be properly reviewed, including new evidence his attorneys say will cast further doubt on his conviction. His attorneys have filed court documents urging the same. 

A federal district court on Friday issued a 30-day stay in order to allot enough time to consider his case, but that was lifted by the Eight Circuit appellate court on Sunday, clearing the way for execution.

“We are heartbroken,” said Tara. “I 100 percent in my heart believe he is innocent and he has been in there for 20 years as an innocent man.”

Gladys Kuehler, the 81-year-old manager of an Ozark trailer park, was found dead in a pool of blood in her trailer on Oct. 9, 1991. She had been stabbed 50 times, her throat had been slit, and two Xs were carved into her abdomen. 

Keuhler’s granddaughter, a neighbor, and Walter discovered her body. Walter told police he had been in her trailer earlier that day and immediately became a suspect. Police leaned heavily on the lone piece of physical evidence tying him to the crime: small blood stains on his shirt that matched Keuhler’s DNA. 

He explained that the blood must have landed on his shirt when he slipped and fell while pulling Keuhler’s granddaughter away from her body. She confirmed his story to the police when she was interviewed the night that Keuhler’s body was found but backtracked in her testimony at trial, according to court documents filed on Walter’s behalf.  

To bolster its claim, the state called a so-called expert in blood spatter analysis, a notoriously unreliable type of forensic science responsible for several wrongful convictions. That testimony at his fifth and final trial in 2006 would prove to be damning for Walter—the witness concluded that the blood stains could only have come from a stabbing action, not from brushing up against a pool of blood on the floor.  

Instead of attempting to poke holes in the state’s witnesse’s testimony, Walter’s attorneys chose to try to discredit the field of blood spatter analysis altogether. Their efforts failed, and subsequently Walter was sentenced to die.

The next year, when the Missouri Supreme Court upheld his conviction, a judge on the panel, Michael Wolff, issued a dissent questioning the integrity of the conviction. He pointed out that the state had been guilty of prosecutorial misconduct in the past, had relied on jailhouse informants, and had years to continue building its case against Walter because it was able to keep retrying him. Taken altogether, he wrote that Walter’s “right to a fair trial has been jeopardized irreparably.” 

Nevertheless, his conviction stood. In May, Walter’s attorneys filed a motion with a federal district court asking for a stay so that it could review his case. In that motion, they said that Parson’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order had affected their ability to carry out interviews with jurors to present them with evidence of Walter’s innocence. Now three jurors have expressed “misgivings” about their decisions to vote for death, according to a KSDK-TV report, and his attorneys believe that they would most likely elicit similar responses if given more time. “We had to talk to those jurors in a parking lot with the wind blowing,” Frederick Duchardt, one of the attorneys, told The Intercept.

Walter’s legal team has appealed the Eighth Circuit’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. If it does not rule in his favor, Parson will be the only person standing between Walter and a lethal dose of pentobarbital. 

Should he not step in, Missouri’s decision to carry out an execution amid the COVID-19 pandemic will stand in stark contrast to other death penalty states. Texas has delayed five executions, Tennessee postponed an execution planned for June to 2021, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine rescheduled all executions planned for this summer to 2022. 

“There should not be a rush to skirt due process for a potentially innocent man,” Elyse Max, executive director for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, told The Appeal. “Missouri and the governor are very quick to reopen and get back to business as usual, even if that business is state sanctioned murder.”

Tara said she has called Parson several times to discuss her uncle’s execution but has never been able to get through. She talks to Walter, whom she described as a “fun-loving person who loves to tell jokes and sing,” every day. 

“Given the situation, every time I talk to him he doesn’t dwell on the negative, he doesn’t harp on what’s about to happen,” Tara said. “He’s just so excited to talk to us, he’s grateful for the time he’s getting with his family now.”

She added, “He said he’s not afraid to die, but he doesn’t want to die for something he didn’t do.”