The state of Missouri executed Walter "Arkie" Barton on Tuesday night despite concerns about his conviction and claims of innocence that he maintained until his last breath, sparking renewed calls from human rights groups for an end to the death penalty.
Barton was tried five times from 1993 to 2006 for the October 1991 killing of 81-year-old mobile home park manager Gladys Kuehler. He was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. After a lethal injection and five heavy breaths at a prison in Bonne Terre, the 64-year-old was pronounced dead at 6:10 p.m., according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Leading up to Barton's execution—the first in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic—his legal defense team, human rights advocates, and critics of the death penalty drew attention to unresolved questions about his case and recent reporting that three jurors who voted to convict him now have doubts about the state's evidence. After Barton's death, his final words circulated on social media.
After Barton's death, his final words—"I, Walter 'Arkie' Barton, am innocent and they are executing an innocent man!!"—circulated on social media.
— innocence (@innocence) May 20, 2020
The Innocence Project—which had created and shared a petition to raised awareness about Barton's consistent claims of innocence, worries over unreliable evidence in his most recent trial in 2006, and the legal fight to save his life—tweeted Tuesday night that "it is unconscionable that this execution was allowed to go forward without a deep examination of his innocence."
Although a federal judge on Friday had granted a 30-day stay of Barton's execution, that order was vacated on Sunday by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. Barton's legal team filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, denied him clemency. Several groups including the American Bar Association had urged Parson to block Barton's execution.
The United States Supreme Court has denied a stay for Mr. Walter Barton. There is nothing left to halt his execution. Our thoughts are with Mr. Barton, his family, and the victim Gladys Kuehler's family. No one should be convicted, let alone executed, on unreliable evidence.
— Midwest Innocence Project (@The_MIP) May 19, 2020
"Walter Barton's conviction relies solely upon two of the known leading causes of wrongful convictions—testimony from a jailhouse informant and flawed forensic science, in this case faulty blood pattern analysis," Vanessa Potkin, the Innocence Project's director of post-conviction litigation, said in a statement reported by The Kansas City Star. "There is simply no reliable evidence left to sustain his conviction."
Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement to the newspaper Tuesday that "today's execution is a dark and tragic reminder that Missouri's criminal justice system is unabashedly flawed and rife with misplaced priorities."
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The ACLU's national arm addressed Barton's execution in a tweet, declaring that "the death penalty has no place in a society that values human dignity and justice."
BREAKING: The state of Missouri just executed Walter Barton despite persuasive, unresolved questions about his innocence.
The death penalty has no place in a society that values human dignity and justice.
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 19, 2020
Noting that Barton maintained his innocence until the end, Amnesty International USA tweeted that "the only way to avoid executing an innocent person is to abolish the death penalty altogether."
— Amnesty International USA (@amnestyusa) May 19, 2020
St. Louis Public Radio reporter Shahla Farzan noted that Barton's was the first state execution in the country since that of Nathaniel Woods, who was killed by the state of Alabama on March 5 despite concerns about injustices in his case:
The Missouri Department of Corrections confirmed that #WalterBarton was pronounced dead tonight at 6:10 pm.
— Shahla Farzan (@ShahlaFarzan) May 19, 2020
Woods' execution also provoked calls to abolish the death penalty nationwide—including from Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). At the time, the congresswoman highlighted her proposed People's Justice Guarantee legislation and H.R. 4052, a bill she introduced in July 2019 that would "prohibit the imposition of the death penalty for any violation of federal law, and for other purposes."
This post has been updated to reflect that Vanessa Potkin is the Innocence Project's director of post-conviction litigation.