Walter Barton execution: Missouri man pleaded innocence till the end for 1991 murder of 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler

Walter Barton execution: Missouri man pleaded innocence till the end for 1991 murder of 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler
Walter Barton (Missouri DOC)

BONNE TERRE, MISSOURI: Walter Barton became the first death row inmate to be executed in the United States by lethal injection on Tuesday, May 19, during the ongoing pandemic. The last execution in the US was that of Nathaniel Woods on March 5.

Barton was granted a stay of execution by an appellate court last Friday, May 15, which was later overturned by a federal court on Sunday, May 17. On Monday, May 18, Missouri Governor Mike Parson rejected an appeal from Barton's lawyers who later filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court.

In his final statement released prior to his execution, Barton said: "I, Walter 'Arkie' Barton, am innocent and they are executing an innocent man!!" Barton was convicted for killing Gladys Kuehler, 81, in 1991. A jury recently said that "compelling" new evidence made them feel "uncomfortable" about the conviction and he had long maintained his innocence.

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." The granddaughter first confirmed that account but testified that Barton never came into the bedroom. A blood spatters expert at Barton's trial said the three small stains likely resulted from the "impact" of the knife.

Barton was executed in Bonne Terre, Missouri, about 60 miles south of St. Louis, at a prison that has no confirmed cases of the virus. Strict protocols were in place to protect workers and visitors from exposure to the coronavirus. Everyone entering the prison had their temperatures checked, while face coverings were required. The prison provided masks and gloves for those who did not have them. However, at one point, four officials from the Department of Corrections, including Director Anne Precythe and three other officials, briefly entered -- they were not wearing facial protection. Witnesses were divided into three separate rooms and included some journalists and state witnesses, and people who supported Barton. According to the Associated Press, no relatives or other supporters of the victim attended.

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 Governor 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.

In a statement to MEA WorldWide, the Innocence Project said, "Since 1976, there have been 167 innocent people exonerated from death row — that means for every nine people executed in the US in the modern era of the death penalty, one person on death row has been exonerated. It is unconscionable that this execution was allowed to go forward without a deep examination of Walter’s innocence."

The last execution in Texas, the nation's busiest capital punishment state, was in early February. Since then, seven executions that were scheduled have been delayed. Six of the delays had some connection to the pandemic while the seventh was related to claims that a death row inmate is intellectually disabled. The next execution in Texas is set for June 16. Officials have instituted a process requiring witnesses to be subject to the same screening process required of prison employees before entering the facility, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel said. 

The screening involves questions based on potential exposure to coronavirus and health inquiries.

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