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Missouri Carries Out Country’s First Execution During Pandemic

Barring intervention by Gov. Mike Parson or federal courts, Walter Barton, shown here in an undated photo, will be the first person executed in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.
Walter Barton, shown here in an undated photo, was convicted of the 1991 murder of the operator of a mobile home park in southwest Missouri.

Walter Barton was executed Tuesday for a 1991 murder in southwest Missouri.

Updated at 7:45 p.m. with Barton's death

Walter Barton was executed Tuesday evening at the state prison in Bonne Terre.

Barton is the first person to be executed in the U.S. since March 5. Texas and Tennessee have postponed scheduled executions during the coronavirus outbreak.

Several groups, including the American Bar Association and the Innocence Project, asked Gov. Mike Parson to postpone Barton’s execution, but Parson declined to intervene.

Here is the original story

Missouri is set to execute Walter Barton on Tuesday for a 1991 murder in what would be the first execution in the nation during the coronavirus pandemic.

Two other states that had executions scheduled during the pandemic — Texas and Tennessee — halted them, citing the difficulty of doing investigations while the country is locked down. 

“There are a lot of issues that cannot be raised until the last minute, like whether a defendant is competent mentally to be executed,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “In many states, you can’t file for commutation until there’s a death warrant. When it comes to newly discovered evidence, you have a lot of litigation as well. All of those involve in-person investigations. You can’t do that during a pandemic.”

The Death Penalty Information Center does not take a position on capital punishment but has criticized the way states carry out executions.

Barton was convicted of killing the operator of a mobile home park in southwest Missouri. His supporters say there are questions about the blood spatter evidence used to convict him and the credibility of a jailhouse informant. The jurors his defense team has been able to contact say that would have affected their deliberations. The state Supreme Court in April rejected a request to hear that new evidence. 

The pandemic is also creating concerns for the health of people involved in the execution. According to the Department of Corrections, the prison at Bonne Terre has multiple separate witness rooms, and can accommodate everyone who wants to be present, even with social distancing requirements. Those witnesses will be provided masks and hand sanitizer made by prisoners. A corrections spokesperson said there are no cases of COVID-19 at Bonne Terre.

But transporting a prisoner to death row goes against federal guidance that says prisoners should only be transported for medical care, said Elyse Max, the state director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. And as of May 13, prison visits were suspended until June 18.

“The fact that they have publicly said, ‘We’re not going to let people in right now because it’s not safe,’ yet they intend to move forward with an execution, which will definitely bring people in, it’s a bit hypocritical,” Max said.

Barring intervention from Gov. Mike Parson or the federal courts, Barton will be executed after 6 p.m. Tuesday.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel Lippmann
Lippmann returned to her native St. Louis after spending two years covering state government in Lansing, Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and followed (though not directly) in Maria Altman's footsteps in Springfield, also earning her graduate degree in public affairs reporting. She's also done reporting stints in Detroit, Michigan and Austin, Texas. Rachel likes to fill her free time with good books, good friends, good food, and good baseball.
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