Missouri is the sole state planning an execution during the pandemic. Adding massively to the ignominy, Walter Barton may well be innocent. We encourage conscientious people to urge Gov. Mike Parson to reverse course from his earlier comments, halt Barton’s planned execution on May 19 and convene a board of inquiry to investigate Barton’s strong claims of having been wrongly convicted.
Due to COVID-19 concerns, governors in other states, including fellow Republicans in Texas and Ohio, have stayed all the other 15 executions scheduled. They recognize the grim events constitute at this time an unnecessary public-health risk for prison workers, witnesses and others who would gather.
There are many other disconcerting issues in Barton’s case. Evidence never heard by jurors supports his steadfast claims he did not murder Gladys Kuehler, the 81-year old live-in manager of a trailer park in Ozark, south of Springfield.
Circumstantial evidence, dubious physical proof and jail-informant testimony formed the basis for the state’s case, marred by prosecutorial misconduct and investigative tunnel vision.
“Barton went on trial five times from 1993 to 2006,” noted the Kansas City Star in a February article on his execution date being set. “Two ended in mistrials, one of which stemmed from a jury deadlocked over his guilt, and two of his convictions were overturned. His final trial” ended in his third conviction.
According to initial police reports, Debbie Selvidge, the victim’s granddaughter, requested that Barton come to Ms. Kuehler’s trailer with her and another woman to investigate why the grandmother was not answering the door or her phone. After a locksmith opened the door, the three entered and found Kuehler’s body in the bedroom. When Selvidge knelt down to the body, Barton pulled her back away from it and they slipped on blood on the floor. He told investigators his recollections. They checked with Selvidge, who initially confirmed his account.
Barton has always contended it must have been during that slipping, that a few pinprick-sized spots of blood were thrown onto his shirt and pants. At trial, prosecutors presented a forensics specialist who asserted the blood spots proved he killed her.
His attorneys failed to challenge that testimony until after the fifth trial when his legal team finally contracted with Lawrence Renner, a forensics expert who conducted an independent analysis. He concluded Barton’s account was consistent with the evidence. Renner insisted he couldn’t have committed the murder, as the shirt of the murderer would have been drenched in blood.
Additionally, three of the four witnesses prosecutors initially presented, claiming they had heard Barton implicate himself of murder, have recanted their statements. Prosecutors allowed the perjury of the lone remaining witness, Katherine Allen, in all trials, including the fifth one, despite the ruling of appellate Judge John Sims ordering her exclusion from future proceedings after the fourth trial. Allen persisted in saying Barton, while in a jail cell near her, allegedly threatened to kill her, like he said he did Ms. Kuehler.
The clemency application filed earlier this month reports that Allen, when questioned by the prosecution in that last trial, told jurors she had only six prior convictions for check-writing offenses even after Judge Sims had overturned the conviction in Barton’s previous trial citing prosecutors for knowingly using her “perjured testimony.” He reported finding Allen actually had 29 prior criminal convictions. No jury had also ever learned that prosecutors agreed to dismiss a criminal charge against Allen in exchange for her testimony. The details all combined would have considerably undermined the credibility of the witness, Sims concluded.
Fred Duchardt, Barton’s current attorney, wrote in his appeal to the governor that his investigation, began prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, found at least one juror from the fifth trial who said they may have decided Barton was not guilty had they heard the new evidence. In-person interviews with other jurors have been unable to take place due to pandemic safety restrictions, the document notes.
We mourn the violent death of Ms. Kuehler with her loved ones and condemn all such violence, including state killings. Our society understandably wants those who perpetrate such crimes held to account.
Once a police officer saw blood spots on Barton’s shirt, investigators seemed to develop tunnel vision and ceased considering all possibilities of who may have committed the murder. Their suspicions increased, it seems, as they realized he was also living out of his car.
Mistakes do most certainly, horribly happen. For every nine executions nationally, at least one person has been found to have been wrongly convicted. The vast majority of the 89 men executed in Missouri since 1989 admitted their guilt. A review, however, found that eight of them went to their death professing innocence, according to the Kansas City Star. Four were found to have been wrongly convicted.
We plead with Gov. Parson to heed and investigate the claims of Walter Barton while he lives.
Please contact the governor’s office by calling 573-751-3222 or e-mailing a note via www.governor.mo.gov
Jeff Stack is coordinator for the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Thank him for recently commuting the sentence of Dimetrious Woods, allowing the Columbia resident and business owner to not have to return to prison. Urge Gov. Parson to take righteous and compassionate action once more or at least delay the execution for several months or until the pandemic abates. Better yet, convene a Board of Inquiry for Barton and spare the life of this man with a strong claim he was wrongly convicted.
Jeff Stack, of Columbia, is coordinator for the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation.