Killing without Knowing: We Did It Again

Yesterday, Missouri executed Walter Barton via lethal injection for the 1991 killing of his former landlord, 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler.

An execution in the Midwest would not typically be newsworthy on a broad scale, but Barton’s execution has captured the national consciousness. Of course, these are not normal times. Barton was the first person to be executed since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic and that, in itself, is newsworthy. As Erik Ortiz writes, “Other states, including Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, have postponed scheduled executions while corrections officials handle the deepening health crisis, which has overwhelmed many correctional facilities across the country.”

Barton’s execution also is newsworthy because, as in previous cases, there were serious questions about his guilt as the execution approached. Sometimes, as in the case of Rodney Reed, courts issue a stay of execution, though such actions may only provide a temporary delay. In many others, however — Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas, Troy Davis in Georgia, and Sedley Alley in Tennessee, for example — the executions go forward with serious questions left unresolved.

Gladys Kuehler ran a mobile home park in Ozark, Missouri. She was found dead in her bedroom in October 1991, sexually assaulted and stabbed more than fifty times.

Barton was a former tenant and regularly spent time at Kuehler’s mobile home park. He was with her granddaughter and neighbor on the night she was found dead. Police found three small blood stains on Barton’s clothing that matched Kuehler’s. A blood-spatter analyst testified that they were likely from the “impact” of the knife; Barton claims the blood got on him when he pulled Kuehler’s granddaughter away from the body.

The prosecution’s theory was that Barton went to borrow money from Kuehler and wound up killing her. The blood stains were the cornerstone of their case, along with another inmate who claimed that Barton confessed to him in jail.

Barton was convicted and sentenced to death in 1994, but the case was so marred by questions and errors that his conviction was repeatedly overturned. He had a total of five trials, one of which resulted in a hung jury, but was ultimately sent to die. Barton maintained his innocence.

Source: mosaic36, Flickr

In the years since Barton’s conviction, blood-pattern analysis has come under heavy scrutiny in the forensic science community, including a National Academy of Sciences study which noted that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain-pattern analysis are enormous.” And recently, an independent blood spatter analyst examined the evidence from Barton’s case, concluding that the killer would have had more blood on him and the small stains were consistent with Barton’s version.

The new evidence has proven compelling enough that several jurors who convicted Barton now doubt his guilt, including the jury foreman who said that, given what is now known, he would be “uncomfortable” recommending capital punishment.

“I don’t know how anybody could look at the evidence now and convict him.” -Fred Duchardt, Jr., attorney for Walter Barton

As I wrote about the Sedley Alley case, I don’t, and can’t, know for certain whether Walter Barton was innocent. But I do know that there are serious and reasonable reasons for doubt.

Barton’s conviction rested upon two well-known factors that contribute to wrongful convictions: flawed or misapplied forensic science, and jailhouse informants.

Data from the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks known exonerations in the United States since 1989 and currently includes 2,617 cases, shows that “false or misleading forensic evidence” is the among the most common contributing factors, present in nearly one-fourth of known wrongful convictions to date. “Perjury or false accusation,” which includes that from jailhouse informants, is the most common contributor, in more than half of known exoneration cases.

We also know that errors do sometimes happen in the criminal legal system, including death penalty cases. Since 1973, 167 people have been exonerated after being sentenced to death, and a study published by the National Academy of Sciences conservatively estimated that 4.1% of death sentences may involve false convictions.

I also know that the death penalty seems to be a dying practice in the United States, fueled in large part by concerns about wrongful convictions. And if we are to maintain a system of state-imposed executions, we must be willing to acknowledge that errors are possible. When serious questions are raised, we must be willing to slow down, reconsider what we think we know, and learn more. After all, doing so will only help increase the legitimacy of our criminal legal system.

Walter “Arkie” Barton was executed on May 19, 2020. Before the needle was placed in his arm to deliver the fatal drugs, he made a final statement: “I, Walter ‘Arkie’ Barton, am innocent and they are executing an innocent man.”

Robert J. Norris is an Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, and Society at George Mason University and a leading scholar on issues related to wrongful convictions and exonerations. You can learn more about him and his work by visiting his website, and you can order his books here.

Author, professor. Writing about law, justice, politics, culture. Books: Exonerated (tinyurl.com/y4jfqsaj) & When Justice Fails (tinyurl.com/yyen4ggf).

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