Walter Barton: Missouri man who stabbed woman to death will be executed today in first since Covid-19 outbreak

Walter Barton: Missouri man who stabbed woman to death will be executed today in first since Covid-19 outbreak
Walter Barton (Missouri DOC)

Walter Barton, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Tuesday night, will become the first death row inmate to be executed in the United States since the novel coronavirus has ravaged the country. The convicted killer was granted a stay of execution by an appellate court last Friday, but it was eventually overturned by a federal court on Sunday. Finally, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson rejected an appeal on Monday. Barton's lawyers have now filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court - which would be his last opportunity to avoid execution.

Barton, 64, was sentenced to death in the 1991 stabbing death of 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler. However, District Court Judge Brian Wimes granted Barton's defense team a stay of execution so they would have more time to prepare a case against the blood spatter evidence that was used to convict their client. Barton, who was due to be evicted from a trailer park that Kueler operated, became one of the prime suspects in her murder. His 2006 conviction was based, in part, on the bloodstains found on his clothes, which reportedly matched her DNA. But it emerged that Barton was also one of the first people to find Kuehler's body. According to him, the stains came from when he tried to pull "the victim's granddaughter off her body."

His defense team has argued that the coronavirus pandemic has further slowed their appeal. Meanwhile, Gov. Parson said he has no plans to intervene in the execution after the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the stay. It's important to note that in the last 27 years, Barton has been tried five times for Kuehler's death, with the first two trials ending in a mistrial and hung jury. The following two led to Barton's convictions but both were eventually overturned. However, he was convicted and sentenced to death in the final trial.

According to some advocates with knowledge of the case, there are glaring doubts about his guilt. The Innocence Project has, in fact, argued that 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 Innocence Project wrote in a letter to Gov. Parson.

"Significantly, the victim was stabbed 50 times, and the real perpetrator of the crime would have been covered with blood, which Barton was not," it added.

Meanwhile, Elyse Max of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty has argued that a lot of the evidence that convicted Barton "has been debunked." "Blood spatter science has changed since the 1990s. We know a lot more about how it works to get witnesses who are jailhouse snitches," she explained. "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."

However, the office of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has deemed Barton guilty and said his defense team has no credible avenue for a delay. "There is nothing that supports a stay here," the 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," it concluded.

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