Mo. execution to be first since COVID-19 pandemic began
Walter Barton, 64, would be the first person executed in the U.S. since Nathaniel Woods was put to death in Alabama on March 5
By Jim Salter
O'FALLON, Mo. — The pause in U.S. executions during the coronavirus pandemic likely will end Tuesday with the scheduled lethal injection of a Missouri inmate for slaying an elderly woman nearly three decades ago.
Walter Barton, 64, would be the first person executed in the U.S. since Nathaniel Woods was put to death in Alabama on March 5. Soon after that, efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus shut down the U.S. economy and led to strict limits on social distancing, including inside prisons. Three states have put aside executions over the past 2½ months.
Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said Monday that he had not heard anything to make him reconsider the execution, which he said would “move forward as scheduled.” A federal appeals court on Sunday overturned a 30-day stay of execution granted by a judge two days earlier. Barton's attorney has asked for a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gladys Kuehler operated a mobile home park in the town of Ozark, Missouri, near Springfield. In October 1991 she was found dead in her bedroom. She had been beaten, sexually assaulted and stabbed more than 50 times.
Barton has long said he was innocent, and his case has been tied up for years due to appeals, mistrials and two overturned convictions.
Other states, including Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, have postponed executions after attorneys argued that pandemic-related closures prevented them from securing records or conducting interviews for clemency petitions and court appeals.
Attorneys also expressed concerns about interacting with individuals and possibly being exposed to the virus. And, they've argued that the execution process, which includes placing prison workers and witnesses in close proximity to each other, could lead to spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
There have been no confirmed cases of the virus in the prison housing Missouri's execution chamber in Bonne Terre, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of St. Louis.
Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said everyone entering the prison will have their temperatures checked and will be offered face coverings. Witnesses will be divided into three rooms. Those witnesses include an Associated Press reporter and other journalists and state witnesses, and people there to support Barton. No relatives or other supporters of the victim plan to attend, Pojmann said.
Barton often spent time at the mobile home park that Kuehler operated. He was with her granddaughter and a neighbor on the evening of Oct. 9, 1991, when they found Kuehler dead in her bedroom.
Police noticed what appeared to be blood stains on Barton’s clothing, and DNA tests later confirmed it was Kuehler’s. Barton said the stains must have occurred when he pulled Kuehler’s granddaughter away from the body. The granddaughter first confirmed that account but testified that Barton never came into the bedroom. A blood spatter expert at Barton’s trial said the three small stains likely resulted from the “impact” of the knife.
In recent court filings, Barton's attorney, Fred Duchardt Jr., cited the findings of another blood spatter expert. Lawrence Renner examined Barton’s clothing and boots and concluded the killer would have had far more blood stains.
Duchardt said three jurors recently signed affidavits calling Renner’s determination “compelling” and saying it would have affected their deliberations. The jury foreman said that based on the new evidence, he would have been “uncomfortable” recommending the death penalty.
“I don't know how anybody could look at the evidence now and convict him,” Duchardt said.
The last execution in Texas, the nation’s busiest capital punishment state, was Feb. 6. Seven executions that were scheduled since then have been delayed. Six of the delays had some connection to the pandemic while the seventh was related to claims that a death row inmate is intellectually disabled.
The next execution in Texas is set for June 16. Officials have instituted a process requiring witnesses to be be subject to the same screening required of prison employees before entering the facility, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jeremy Desel said. The screening involves questions based on potential exposure to the coronavirus and health inquiries.
Texas’ death chamber is not a heavy traffic area and is isolated from all parts of the prison in Huntsville, and it is constantly cleaned, Desel said.
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