Shane Claiborne on Death in the Middle of Death: The Execution of Walter Barton

The execution chamber at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Missouri, on April 12, 2005. (AP Photo/James A. Finley, File)

Shane Claiborne is the author of “Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us.”


Among the things disrupted by the pandemic is our government’s ability to carry out executions. Some of us might say it is one of the rare silver linings of this coronavirus nightmare.

It’s been over two months (75 days to be exact) since we’ve had an execution. There are only two other times since the turn of the century the state has gone that long without executing someone.

But last Tuesday (May 19), that pause came to an end when the state of Missouri executed Walter Barton for the murder of Gladys Kuehler.

Barton was convicted of killing his 81-year-old landlord, despite all kinds of inconsistencies in his case that should cause hesitation in even the most staunch supporter of the death penalty.

Barton’s execution is but the latest evidence of how irreparably broken our system of capital punishment is in America.

In the years since his arrest in 1991, Barton had five separate trials for his crime – nearly three decades of appeals, mistrials and overturned convictions. He had terribly inadequate counsel, including one attorney who has since been suspended from practicing law. The Missouri prosecutors in Barton’s case misconstrued and withheld evidence, something they had a pattern of doing. The same team of lawyers was responsible for the wrongful convictions of four other innocent men.

The victim had more than 50 stab wounds. Whoever did that would have been covered in blood, yet Barton was convicted based on a spot of blood on his shirt, which he has always said was from trying to console the granddaughter of the victim, pulling her off the body, something confirmed by court testimony. In the words of one Missouri Supreme Court justice it has been “a trail of mishaps and misdeeds.”

It’s safe to say he was not guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In fact, at least three of his jurors now say they would not have voted to convict him had they seen all the evidence. From the moment he was accused of the crime until he breathed his last breath, Barton maintained his innocence.

In this Feb. 18, 2014, booking photo
released by Missouri Department of
Corrections, death row inmate
Walter Barton is seen. (Missouri
Department of Corrections via AP)

Nonetheless, confined to a wheelchair because of a severe neurological disorder due to a traumatic brain injury, Barton was executed at age 64. These were his last words, issued in a statement just before his execution: “I, Walter ‘Arkie’ Barton, am innocent, and they are executing an innocent man.”

For every 9 executions carried out in the U.S., there has been 1 exoneration — 1 person later proved innocent after being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. That’s a terrible track record. Imagine if, for every 10 planes that took off, one of them crashed. That record raises the question of how much we trust our imperfect governmental systems with the irreversible power of life and death — one of the many reasons lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now oppose capital punishment and are pushing for criminal justice reform.

You cannot bring someone back from the dead.

But there is one other thing Barton’s execution reminds us of – the death penalty wouldn’t stand a chance in America if it were not for Christians. On Missouri Gov. Michael Parson’s website, the last line of his bio reads: “Governor Parson has a passion for sports, agriculture, Christ, and people.”

Eighty-five percent of executions happen in the Bible Belt, and nearly all the states that are actively executing have Christian governors, like Parson. It is a stark reminder that the death penalty has survived not in spite of Christians, but because of us.

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Source: Religion News Service