Updated: Jun 16
At 6:10 pm on Tuesday, 19 May, the state of Missouri executed an potentially innocent man. Walter Barton was convicted of 1991 murder of 81-year old Gladys Kuehler despite the revelation of new evidence, and questions about due process as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of Missouri’s decision to not only execute an individual of questionable guilt, but during a pandemic which halted a significant portion of Barton’s defense and appeals, the validity of capital punishment a modern tool of the American justice system must be questioned. While the sentence has fallen out of favor in much of the Western world, 56 percent of Americans still supported capital punishment in the case of convicted murderers according to an October 2019 Gallup Poll. Further, 60 percent of Americans found the death penalty to be morally acceptable, despite the frequency of error present in the justice system. Regardless of one’s opinion of the morality of capital punishment, facts remain which attest to injustice of those subjected to its process, as well as its ineffectiveness in its own role.
The concept of capital punishment is one which that has been by the side of society for millennia, often utilized as the punishment for a like-crime, given the accused was not of a different social class as the accuser. However, as legal systems became more complicated — often to preserve authority — capital punishment was applied to an increasing array of “offenses,” often disproportionately affecting those relegated to the bottom tiers of social hierarchy. One example of this is that of the United Kingdom, from which many of our government structures were borrowed and influenced. Beginning in 1723 with the Waltham Black Act, and regularly expanded between 1750 and 1815, roughly 225 capital offenses existed, many of which punished minor crimes such as forgery, cutting down trees, pick-pocketing, and being an unmarried mother concealing a stillborn child.
As time went on, social reformers campaigned heavily in Europe and the United States. Many European states had abolished capital punishment by the late-nineteenth century, and the United States appeared to be trending in that direction with the 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia, which struck all current capital punishment laws as unconstitutional, commuting the sentence of death row inmates to life imprisonment. However, the Supreme Court later reaffirmed capital punishment in 1976, allowing states once again to carry out executions. Since 1977, 1518 executions have been carried out, with over 2500 currently on death row.
Despite states steadily abolishing the use of capital punishment, it exists in the American consciousness as that of a necessary evil — a punishment so severe and now limited in scope, any use of it is justifiable and pursued with caution. The true nature of capital punishment, however, paints a far different picture. In the case of Walter Barton, the public misconceptions regarding its necessity, as well as the state of Missouri limiting due process, life was unnecessarily lost.
Several myths and misconceptions exist about the use of capital punishment, most of which are rooted in faulty and debunked information, three of which will be addressed here in detail.
While it is intuitive to believe the killing of an individual will cost less than a life sentence, this notion is untrue. Recent studies in several states have indicated that capital punishment cases are all significantly more expensive. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) cites several of these studies, such as the average cost of a death penalty case in Texas is three times the cost of imprisoning “…someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years,” and the fact that “Enforcing the death penalty costs Florida $51 million a year above what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole.” The fact is capital punishment cases cost states and taxpayers significant amounts of money, divert money away from crime prevention resources, education and rehabilitation, and emergency services. To give more context, Walter Barton was tried five times — which included a mistrial, a hung jury, and two convictions being overturned — before a death sentence stuck.
The second myth is also common, stating capital punishment deters crime. Currently, no evidence exists which suggests that the use of capital punishment deters murder (the only capital offense that exists in state law). In April 2012, the National Research Council concluded that, “…research to date is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates. Therefore, these studies should not be used to inform deliberations requiring judgments about the effect of the death penalty on homicide.” This conclusion has been complemented by the decrease in murder rates in states following their abolition of capital punishment, such as in New York and Illinois. As a result, the lack of any evidence describing capital punishment as an effective tool in crime deterrence severely weakens its need in society that finds execution morally acceptable.
Mistakes and Misconduct
Finally, while the first two myths are quantitative in nature, the third is more related to human nature. Many believe that when a state is willing to pursue a death sentence, it will do everything in its power to prevent a mistake — if someone is sentenced to death, they are guilty. Since 1973, 167 individuals who have been convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated, though the amount of innocent people executed is likely higher. Further, according to a DPIC analysis, the most common factors contributing to a wrongful conviction are official misconduct and perjury or false accusation. These are often malicious and misleading tactics in order for the prosecution to secure a conviction. Walter Barton himself had two convictions overturned due to prosecution misconduct and the use of perjured testimony. This same testimony was used at his fifth in final trial. According to the Innocence project the unit that convicted Barton is also responsible for at least four other wrongful convictions. Combined with inadequate legal representation, false and misleading forensic evidence, and three jurors who have since stated they doubt Barton’s guilt, a death sentence carries a clear risk. A risk as immoral as any action that would warrant the use of this archaic tool.
The presence of capital punishment in our justice system has failed at least 167 Americans. However, any attention given to recent executions reveals a troubling trend: reasonable doubt. While such doubt exists, an irreversible sentence may have no place in modern criminal justice. Walter Barton, a man who required five trials for the prosecutors to get their desired sentence, a man who had an attorney who received inadequate legal, and a man who was denied due process by being executed during a pandemic always preserved his innocence. Despite the reasonable doubt, at 6:10 pm on Tuesday, 19 May, the state of Missouri murdered an innocent man.
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This piece was written by Forgive Everyone contributor, Luke Herman. Luke is a graduate of Calvin University in History and Education.
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