Walter “Arkie” Barton is scheduled to be executed by the State of Missouri on Tuesday, May 19th. Missouri may well be executing an innocent man.
Barton’s Five Trials and the Prosecution Unit that Led the Charge
In 1991, 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler was stabbed to death at her home in a trailer park. Barton, who also lived in the trailer park and knew Kuehler, soon became the prime suspect in the grisly murder.
Barton was tried five times, with one trial ending in a mistrial and another in a hung jury. He was convicted at his third trial, but that conviction was overturned because of serious legal errors.
Which brings us to his fourth trial.
This time, appellate courts reversed the conviction for prosecutorial misconduct — including the use of perjured testimony by a jailhouse informant and the failure to turn over exculpatory evidence as required by the Constitution.
At the fifth trial, the prosecution presented questionable forensic science and called the same jailhouse informant to testify. This time, Barton’s conviction and death sentence stuck.
From day one, Barton insisted he was innocent.
But Barton had been prosecuted by a special unit in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office that was assigned to prosecute capital cases throughout the state of Missouri. This special unit was responsible for the prosecution of at least four other men who were later exonerated.
That’s not exactly a great track record. As one Missouri Supreme Court judge lamented in 2007: “prosecutorial misconduct has plagued the [Barton] trial from the outset.”
The case against Barton was far from overwhelming.
The physical evidence was limited. A hair found on the victim and evidence from beneath the victim’s fingernails did not match Barton.
But at trial, prosecutors presented controversial “blood spatter” testimony. It is controversial because it is often unreliable. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a landmark report in which it described blood spatter evidence as “more subjective than scientific” and warned that the “uncertainties associated with blood spatter pattern analysis are enormous.”
Yet, at Barton’s trial, a prosecution expert claimed that a small bloodstain found on Barton’s clothes were “impact stains” from “high velocity” blood spatter consistent with a stabbing. No matter that the victim has been stabbed 50 times and that the perpetrator would have been drenched in blood. No matter that Barton always claimed that blood got on his shirt when he pulled the victim’s granddaughter from the victim’s body.
In 2015, an expert reviewed the evidence and concluded that the blood on Barton was a “transfer stain,” meaning it likely had been transferred to Barton’s clothing after contact with other bloodstains, evidence that is consistent with Barton’s version of what happened that day.
Three jurors now say the new evidence may have changed their verdict in the case. But they didn’t hear about it at trial.
Then there’s the jailhouse informant, Katherine Allen. Jailhouse informants are notoriously unreliable because they have incentives to lie to save their own skin. Allen was no exception. She was convicted 29 times for various offenses, and she lied on the stand about her criminal record. More importantly, she claimed she had received no benefit for testifying against Barton. That was false.
Innocence on Death Row
For every nine people executed in the United States, one person has been exonerated. That is an astonishingly high rate of error.
To put it in perspective, if a plan crashed once every nine times it took flight, would you ever fly again?
Of course not. But we allow states to continue executing people, knowing that those death penalty convictions are often wrong.
Barton’s conviction rests on questionable evidence. Even proponents of the death penalty should be deeply uncomfortable executing people when there are doubts about guilt.
In Barton’s case, there are significant questions that remain to be answered.
The Death Penalty Information Center has identified 18 men who have been executed despite strong evidence of innocence. Unless some kind of last-minute legal intervention occurs, Walter “Arkie” Barton may be the next addition to this ignominious list.