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Missouri Executes Prisoner During COVID-19 Crisis

This is not so for the eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth state of Missouri where Walter “Arkie” Barton succumbed to that state’s murder machine on May 19, 2020. Making this particular execution even more horrible is the high probability that Barton is innocent of the murder for which he was convicted of — five separate times.

On October 9, 1991, 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler was stabbed over 50 times in her bedroom where her granddaughter and Barton later found her. The granddaughter embraced her body, then Barton pulled her away. Some of Kuehler’s blood had gotten on the granddaughter with some of it then being transferred to him. It would be this miniscule bit of blood that an expert on blood spatter (a now-discredited forensic method) would continuously testify resulted from a knife’s “impact” with the victim.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has a Capital Crimes Prosecution Unit (CCPU) that will either assist county prosecutors trying a death penalty case or will try it themselves. Despite the CCPU’s high conviction rate, it is nonetheless a dismal one.

Capital convictees Dale Helmig, Brad Jennings, Joshua Kezer and Mark Woodworth were all tried by the CCPU, convicted, sentenced to death and later exonerated. Their average death row stay was 15 years each.

The CCPU’s first and second attempt to convict Barton ended in a mistrial, then a hung jury. In a dogged display of the axiom “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again,” the CCPU tried and tried and tried again to convict Barton. The third trial saw a conviction that was overturned on appeal — for prosecutorial misconduct. The fourth trial incorporated a known perjurious jailhouse snitch whose testimony against Barton was later proven to be ... perjury.

Along with several acts of prosecutorial misconduct topped with the jailhouse snitch’s perjured testimony, the fourth conviction was reversed. The CCPU’s fifth time at the bench was the charm. Even with the reuse of the jailhouse snitch’s testimony, this conviction and death sentence would be affirmed by Missouri’s Supreme Court, despite one justice’s lamentation that the CCPU had, in Barton’s case, left “a trail of mishaps and misdeeds that, taken together, reflect poorly on the criminal justice system.”

Jailhouse snitches are most often used when there is no, or not enough, evidence to obtain a conviction otherwise. The only physical evidence in Barton’s case was a tiny droplet of Kuehler’s blood on his clothes and detritus scraped from under Kuehler’s fingernails along with hair found on her torso that did not come from Barton.

In 1999, the Chicago Tribune reported that 25 percent of the death penalty convictions in Illinois resulted from prosecutors relying on jailhouse snitch testimony. This statistic proved to be true nationwide in a report released in 2004 by Northwestern Law School’s Center on Wrongful Convictions.

In postconviction proceedings, forensic scientist Lawrence Renner testified that the attack on Kuehler involving 50 stab wounds would have resulted in the killer being drenched with her blood, a far greater amount than the infinitesimal bit of blood found on Barton. The hairs found on Kuehler’s torso and scrapings from underneath her fingernails have gone unmentioned and, as yet, presumably unidentified. Finally, jurors from Barton’s fifth trial attested that had they known about the true blood-spatter facts, unidentified fingernail scrapings and hair, they doubted their verdicts would have been the same. Also, one of Barton’s many trial lawyers was deemed unfit to practice law and suspended.

The 11th Circuit U.S. Appeal Court denied a hearing on Barton’s innocence, essentially stating it should have been brought forth sooner and lifted its stay of execution. On May 19, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari and a further stay of execution. See: Barton v. Stange, 140 S. Ct. 2800 (2020).

With the shutdowns resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Barton’s attorneys and their investigators were effectively denied access to records and interviews with people they needed to prepare a clemency petition. 

 

Related legal case

Barton v. Stange