He maintained his innocence to the end, but an Ozark man has been executed for murdering an 81-year-old woman in 1991.
Walter Barton, 64, died shortly after 6 p.m. upon receiving a lethal dose of the drug pentobarbital at the Missouri Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre. Barton was the first person to be executed in Missouri in 2020, and the first person in the United States to be executed since much of the country fell under emergency orders due to the COVID-19 disease pandemic.
Barton's execution concluded at 6:13 p.m.
Barton had a brief moment of reprieve over the weekend, but it was dashed in federal court late Sunday.
On May 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit vacated a stay of execution that a judge issued for Barton on May 15, meaning that Barton could be executed on May 19 for the murder of Gladys Kuehler.
“(W)e see no possibility of success on the merits of either of Barton’s claims,” the appellate judges wrote in their opinion issued the day before Barton’s execution date.
A jury found in 2006 that Kuehler’s death “involved depravity of mind, and as a result thereof, the murder was outrageously and wantonly vile, horrible and inhuman.”
Vigil for a convicted killer
Abraham Bonowitz, a leader of the national group Death Penalty Action, led an online vigil conducted in the hour before Barton was executed. One by one, guest speakers shared their thoughts on the Barton case and capital punishment in Missouri.
"We remember the victims. We remember Gladys Kuehler, we remember her family and everybody that's touched by this," Bonowitz said. "We hope that they can somehow find some comfort in what's happening, but leaders among us in this movement are murder victim family members."
Nimrod Chapel, president of the Missouri Conference of the NAACP, is a frequently outspoken activist against the death penalty in Missouri.
"Mr. Barton's case reveals that there is a deep divide between the haves and the have-nots," Chapel said. "Another reality present in the United States and certainly present in Missouri at this time is that there are inequities that are playing out in people's lives and leading to the end of their lives. There is no reason that we should be at the conclusion of a criminal case and not be sure that the person actually did it."
Chapel felt that Barton's case still had too many questions surrounding it for the state to carry out the execution.
"We are taking a life, and I think that that is as solemn as it gets, because after this there will be no more opportunity for (Barton)," Chapel said. "Sometimes justice is an issue, but even in the absence of justice, there is always mercy."
Elyse Max is the director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She and two other protesters donned face masks and held vigil outside the prison in Bonne Terre on the evening of the execution. She said she had come to know Barton by exchanging letters.
"(Barton) has always maintained his innocence. He has been helpful, and he is kind. He wants to go out and he wants to go fishing, and he wants to be with his family and with his friends," Max said.
Defense argues about jurors, COVID-19 impact
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear arguments on Barton's behalf just after 4:30 p.m. on May 19, about 90 minutes prior to the start of Barton's 24-hour execution window.
The court denied Barton's request for a writ of certiorari, or an agreement that the Supreme Court would have stayed Barton's execution in order to take time to review his case and appeals. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch issued the one-page order denying Barton's motions.
Defense attorney Frederick Duchardt filed a motion for stay of execution with the U.S. Supreme Court on May 18. In that motion, Duchardt wrote that prior to a statewide stay-at-home order came down April 3, defense attorneys and investigators obtained contact information for jurors from Barton’s 2006 trial.
At least three jurors are alleged to have signed affidavits in which they found “new evidence of actual innocence brought forth to the Missouri Supreme Court,” to be “compelling,” and reportedly said that the evidence would have impacted jury deliberations.
“However, the adverse conditions created by the COVID-19 restriction have stymied efforts to find and interview the remaining jurors,” Duchardt wrote.
The defense also argued that Gov. Mike Parson did not have adequate time or resources to consider a request for clemency and a stay of execution for Barton.
“Moreover, because of this crisis, the governor’s agenda is obviously over-full. Thus, it would be fundamentally unfair to have the weighty issue of possible clemency for Mr. Barton come to the governor at this time,” Duchardt wrote.
When asked about the execution and possibility of clemency on March 18, Gov. Mike Parson indicated that the execution would be carried out as planned.
Timeline of events
The sequence of events from the day that Gladys Kuehler died has been recounted in a U.S. Supreme Court petition that Barton’s attorney filed in seeking a writ of habeas corpus for Barton and requesting a hearing before the court.
Gladys Kuehler lived in a mobile home that she owned at Riverview Mobile Home Park in Ozark.
On the morning of Oct. 9, 1991, mobile home park resident Carol Horton last saw Kuehler at 11 a.m. Kuehler was sitting on a daybed in her living room, and Horton shopped for Kuehler and retrieved her mail that day.
Barton reportedly visited Horton’s trailer between noon and 2 p.m. Barton was described to be in a “happy-go-lucky” mood. He told Horton he was going to Kuehler’s residence to see if she would lend him $20. At the time, Barton was reportedly living in his car.
Barton allegedly returned about 15 minutes later. During the 2 o’clock hour, Kuehler reportedly had some visitors at her trailer. Teddy Bartlett and his wife, Sharon Strahan, and park co-owners Dorothy and Bill Pickering all stopped by. A man named Roy reportedly stopped in to return some items he borrowed from Kuehler, and Debbie Selvidge, Kuehler’s granddaughter, called on the phone and briefly spoke to Kuehler.
Everyone reportedly left at around 2:45 p.m. Kuehler was going to take a nap.
Barton reportedly left Horton’s mobile home for a second time at 3 p.m., stating he was going back to Kuehler’s home.
At 3:15 p.m., Bill Pickering phoned Kuehler. A person with a male voice answered the phone, and told Pickering that Kuehler was unavailable and using the bathroom. Pickering gave his name and asked for Kuehler to call him back. Barton later told a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper that he had answered the phone call.
Barton returned to Horton’s home at about 4 p.m., and asked to use the restroom. Horton noticed that he took a long time in the bathroom, and she went to check on Barton. Barton said that he had been working a car and was taking a while to wash his hands.
Horton reportedly, “noticed that (Barton’s) mood had changed, and now, instead of being jovial as he was before, he was distant and seemed in a hurry.” Horton told Barton she was going to Kuehler’s trailer. Barton told her, “No, don't… Ms. Gladys is lying down taking a nap.”
Horton went to the trailer anyway. No one answered her knock at the door, so she left and went to get her car washed.
Selvidge, Kuehler’s granddaughter, called her grandmother at 4 p.m. When she did not get an answer on the telephone, Selvidge went to Kuehler’s trailer. Seeing the lights off, Selvidge left to get help.
Selvidge and Horton requested help from Barton to knock on Kuehler’s door again.
Sometime after 6:30 p.m., Selvidge and Horton drove to the downtown Ozark square and flagged down a police officer. The police called a locksmith, who unlocked the trailer. As the locksmith worked, the police officer “left to take another call.” When the door was unlocked and open, Selvidge, Horton and Barton entered the trailer.
According to the court document, Selvidge walked down a hall toward Kuehler’s bedroom, as Barton allegedly said, “Ms. Debbie, don’t go down the hall. Ms. Debbie, don’t go down the hall.”
Selvidge found her grandmother lying dead on the bedroom floor. She had been stabbed, “numerous times, with her throat cut ear-to-ear.”
Selvidge turned and pushed past Horton and Barton and returned to the living room. Barton allegedly looked over Horton’s shoulder into the bedroom, “but he never got close to the body or the blood in the bedroom.”
Horton and Selvidge also said that Barton did not get upset when he saw Kuehler’s body, “but remained calm, showing no emotion,” and when he returned to the living room, he told Selvidge he was “so sorry,” according to the court document.
Case against Barton
Police took Barton into custody when he told a Highway Patrol investigator that he had answered the phone call from Pickering, which placed Barton in the trailer at 3:15 p.m. Police “noticed what appeared to be blood on the elbow and shoulder of [Barton’s] shirt, and [Barton] responded that he had gotten the blood on him when he slipped while pulling Selvidge away from the victim’s body.”
“An autopsy conducted on the victim revealed that she was stabbed well in excess of 50 times,” the Supreme Court document reads. Kuehler was stabbed in both eyes, her chest, neck, abdomen, left hand, left arm and 23 times in her back. Examiners concluded that Kuehler suffered a blunt force injury to her head, and that Kuehler had was sexually assaulted.
Police also found a check missing from Kuehler's checkbook, which was otherwise meticulously kept. Three days after the killing, a volunteer cleaning up roadside trash found a check of the corresponding number filled out Kuehler's handwriting. It had been made out to Barton in the amount of $50.
The legal history in Barton’s case is “lengthy and complex.” Since his arrest in 1991, he has been tried five times. The first attempt was a mistrial, due to the state’s failure to endorse any witnesses. The second trial was a hung jury, deadlocked over the issue of Barton’s guilt. On the third trial, a jury found Barton guilty and he was sentenced to death, but the verdict was overturned on appeal “due to the trial judge’s improper restriction of defense counsel’s closing argument,” according to the Supreme Court document.
Barton was found guilty and sentenced to death at his fourth trial. Through the appeals process, the Missouri Supreme Court eventually reversed and remanded the decision. After a hearing on remand, a judge in Benton County set aside the conviction and sentence, and ordered another trial.
In 2006, a Cass County jury found Barton guilty of first-degree murder, and Circuit Judge Joseph Dandurand sentenced Barton to death. The Missouri Supreme Court, through the appeals process, eventually affirmed the sentence in 2007, in 2014, in 2016 and again in 2020.