A federal judge issued a ruling Friday that will stay the execution of an Ozark man who was set to die by lethal injection on May 19.
Walter Barton, 64, was granted a 30-day stay of execution in the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Western District of Missouri on May 15. The ruling grants the federal court time to consider Barton's claims of innocence on a conviction of first-degree murder from a trial held in Cass County on a change of venue in 2006.
Barton was convicted of the 1991 murder of 81-year-old Gladys Kuehler in Ozark.
Defense attorneys for Barton are arguing against a blood splatter expert that prosecuting attorneys used in their case against Barton. The defense attorney at trial did not bring forth a blood splatter expert to testify on Barton’s behalf, something the petitioners claim it should have done.
Barton's defense also wishes to argue against the testimony of a jailhouse informant who testified against Barton.
The Cass County trial resulted in the fifth trial for Barton, who was arrested by Ozark Police Oct. 9, 1991, when Kuehler’s body was found in her trailer.
A coroner's report confirmed that Kuehler had been stabbed more than 50 times and that she had been sexually assaulted.
Barton was a former resident of the Riverview Mobile Home Park in Ozark. Kuehler was managing the trailer park. DNA evidence showed Kuehler’s blood on Barton’s clothing on the day of his arrest by Ozark police.
The ruling May 15 from U.S. District Judge Brian C. Wimes goes against a Missouri Supreme Court ruling that upheld Barton's execution with a ruling April 27. The Supreme Court opinion acknowledges that Barton presented some additional evidence that may have been “used to impeach a jailhouse informant and provide competing expert testimony to explain the presence of blood on (Barton’s) clothes,” but that it did not show Barton’s innocence in a manner established by prior case law.
The Cass County 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.”
With the new ruling, it's up to the federal court to decide in Barton would likely succeed with his petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on the merits of his petition. The May 15 ruling does not back up Barton's claims of innocence, but it asserts that "the Court requires more time to consider the merits of the claims beyond the 15 days available between the filing of habeas petition May 4, 2020, and the scheduled execution date, May 19, 2020."
The appeal from the state notes the length of time that Barton's case has dragged through the criminal justice system.
"There is nothing that supports a stay here. But, nevertheless, the district court granted a stay of execution--not because it found that Barton had met the standard for a stay as set out in the applicable case law--but instead only because it wanted more time to consider his claims," the appeal document reads, in part. "Missouri respectfully submits that the 28 years since Barton's horrific crimes have provided sufficient time for review of his conviction and sentence."
The state has filed an appeal asking the court to vacate the stay of execution. It argues that Barton's claim of innocence "presents nothing new, and it is alleged to be a gateway to two claims that have already been rejected in earlier habeas petitions as insubstantial."
Barton also claims he is not competent for execution because he suffered from a traumatic brain injury which “gave him major neurocognitive disorder of sufficient severity that he meets the standard for incompetence,” set forth in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2007.
Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP) has spoken out against the state of Missouri’s plan to execute Barton because Missouri is “the only state in the nation moving forward with an execution during the COVID19 pandemic, a declared state of emergency,” according to a letter sent to reporters by the MADP.
Barton was scheduled to be executed at the Missouri Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.
It is unclear where Barton is being held at this time. He is not listed in the Department of Corrections’ statewide inmate search, which may mean that he is being housed outside of the Missouri prison system in a mental health institution, or that his location is being withheld for security purposes.