Missouri carries out first US execution since pandemic began
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A death row inmate who maintained his innocence until the end was executed Tuesday night in the state of Missouri, the first execution in the United States after a two-and-a-half-month hiatus because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Walter Barton, 64, was executed by lethal injection in the Bonne Terre prison.
He was convicted in 2006 of the 1991 murder of Gladys Kuehler, an 81-year-old woman who was stabbed to death in Ozark, Missouri.
His last words were, “I, Walter ‘Arkie’ Barton, am innocent, and they are executing an innocent man.”
Earlier Tuesday, Barton’s lawyers filed a last-minute appeal for a stay of execution with the US Supreme Court, but the court denied the application without comment.
Barton was one of three people who discovered Kuehler’s body at the trailer park that she operated.
The main evidence against him were bloodstains found on his clothes and the testimony of a jailhouse informant.
Barton’s execution was the first in the US since March 5. A Texas court had pointed out that executions often draw large crowds — prison guards, lawyers, witnesses, victims’ relatives.
Executions have been postponed in Ohio, Texas and Tennessee because of virus concerns related to large gatherings.
The Missouri Department of Corrections implemented enhanced safety protocols, in which masked witnesses were separated into three rooms after having their temperatures checked, and they maintained social distancing during the execution, spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said.
Opponents of the death penalty had proclaimed Barton’s innocence and slammed Missouri for proceeding with his execution.
“The fact that the state of Missouri carried out the execution of Walter Barton tonight, as we face a deadly pandemic, is unconscionable,” said Cassandra Stubbs, of the powerful American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“By moving forward, the state not only put the health of the prison staff at risk and forced them to defy public health guidance, it also refused to consider new, persuasive evidence that Barton may be innocent,” she said.
In arguing for a stay of execution, Barton’s lawyers cited concerns about the evidence against him.
They pointed out that his first trial ended in a mistrial, the second in a hung jury and convictions in the next two were overturned.
Barton was finally convicted and sentenced to death at a fifth trial in 2006.
Michael Wolff, a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, was among those expressing doubts about Barton’s guilt.
Writing in the St Louis-Post Dispatch, Wolff said the blood spatter evidence against Barton was “utterly inconclusive” and the jailhouse informant’s testimony “strains credulity.” (AFP)