Barton was convicted after five trials in the 1991 stabbing death of an 81-year-old Missouri woman. Photo by Missouri Department of Corrections/UPI | License Photo
May 19 (UPI) -- Missouri executed a man convicted of killing an 81-year-old woman in 1991 on Tuesday, the first execution to be carried out in the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Walter Barton's lethal injection came hours after the Supreme Court refused to hear his case. He was convicted in the death of trailer park operator Gladys Kuehler, though he maintained his innocence.
Barton sought a stay on the grounds that a blood spatter expert disagreed with the state's expert, who said during trial that blood pattern on the defendant's clothes showed he killed Kuehler. The new expert, though, said that had Barton killed her, he would have had more blood on him.
His appeal also called into question the reliability of a jail informant, who testified at trial that Barton threatened to kill her "like he did that old lady."
Barton's lawyers, meanwhile, sought the stay based on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hindered defense attorneys across the country from conducting investigations needed in the final weeks before a scheduled execution.
"The fact that the state of Missouri carried out the execution of Walter Barton tonight, as we face a deadly pandemic, is unconscionable," said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project.
"By moving forward, the state not only put the health of prison staff at risk and forced them to defy public health guidance, it also refused to consider new, persuasive evidence that Barton may be innocent. We have nearly 50 years of data to show the death penalty is arbitrary, error-prone, biased, and costly. The continued use of the death penalty has no place in any society that values human dignity and justice."
A federal judge on Friday issued a temporary stay, which was later vacated by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Gov. Mike Parson declined to grant clemency.
Barton was tried five times for Kuehler's death, with two ending in a mistrial and hung jury. The next two led to convictions but both were overturned. The final trial again led to a conviction and a sentence of death.
The Innocent Project, an advocacy group against wrongful convictions, said Barton is "likely innocent."
"The only piece of physical evidence used to connect Barton to the murder was a spot of blood found on his shirt, which Barton has always said got on his shirt while he was pulling the victim's granddaughter off her body -- a fact the victim's granddaughter confirmed to investigators," the group said in a statement.
"Significantly, the victim was stabbed 50 times, and the real perpetrator of the crime would have been covered with blood, which Barton was not.
"If you look at the evidence that convicted him a lot of it has been debunked," added Elyse Max of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. "Blood spatter science has changed since the 1990s. We know a lot more about how it works to get witnesses who are jailhouse snitches.
"Three [witnesses] have recanted their testimony. To procedurally deny someone the ability to have this heard based on a technicality, the system is set up in such a way that it is very difficult."
The office of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, however, says Barton is guilty and his defense attorneys have no credible avenue for a delay.
"There is nothing that supports a stay here," Schmitt's office wrote in a court filing before Monday's ruling. "But, nevertheless, the district court granted a stay of execution -- not because it found that Barton had met the standard for a stay as set out in the applicable case law -- but instead only because it wanted more time to consider his claims.
"Missouri respectfully submits that the 28 years since Barton's horrific crimes have provided sufficient time for review of his conviction and sentence. This court should vacate this stay and permit the execution to proceed as scheduled."