I was an honorably discharged 24-year-old Marine when I was convicted and sentenced to death for a tragic crime I did not commit. I was exonerated in 1993, and the real perpetrator, who had gone on to commit more brutal crimes while I sat innocent on death row, was eventually convicted.
Sadly, my story is not unique; 167 people have been exonerated after having been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence Database. For every nine people executed in our country, one person has been exonerated. This statistic should make us nervous about the very real risk of executing an innocent person.
On May 19, Missouri executed Walter Barton. There are troubling similarities between Barton’s case and those of the 167 men and women who were fortunate to be exonerated before their death sentences were carried out. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the top three causes of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases are official misconduct, perjury or false accusation and false or misleading forensic evidence. All three of these issues are present in Barton’s case.
Official misconduct, present in over 80% of wrongful death sentences: Barton’s five trials were full of what Missouri Supreme Court judges have called “mishaps and misdeeds” including official misconduct when a prosecutor withheld critical information.
Perjury/false accusation, present in over 75% of wrongful death sentences: A key witness against Barton was a jailhouse informant who had a criminal charge against her dismissed in exchange for her testimony. Such jailhouse informants make up the vast majority of perjury and false accusations found in wrongful convictions.
False/misleading forensic evidence, present in over 30% of wrongful death sentences: New analysis of forensic evidence in Barton’s case contradicts the state expert’s testimony at trial and instead supports the idea that Barton is innocent.
An execution is irreversible. It is the highest and most severe punishment, and it should be held to the highest standards of accountability. In Barton’s case, his first trial ended in a mistrial due to actions of the prosecutor. His second trial ended in a mistrial because the jury could not agree upon guilt. The conviction at his third trial was overturned due to actions of the judge. The conviction at his fourth trial was overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct, and in the direct appeal of his fifth trial, the Missouri Supreme Court was split 4-3 in its verdict. That means three of the people entrusted to best understand Missouri law believe Barton should not be executed next week.
Is this death sentence being held to the highest standards of accountability? The only way for Missourians to be 100% sure an innocent person is not killed in their name is to abolish the death penalty. As a man who was nearly killed for a crime I did not commit, I urge Gov. Parson not to execute Walter Barton.
Kirk Bloodsworth is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national organization led by exonerated survivors of death row. His case was the first time DNA evidence was used to overturn a wrongful death sentence. After his exoneration, the Innocence Protection Act established the Kirk Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Program that provides federal grants to defray the costs of testing DNA evidence.