“The United States has the worst criminal justice system in the world – except for all of the rest of them,” said the criminal law professor speaking at a seminar about the death penalty, that featured other speakers who had wrongfully been convicted of murder, sent to death row, and some years later, exonerated and released.
But until we somehow develop the ability to go back in time and actually witness who committed a prior homicide, we are left with the next most fair alternative there can be, the jury trial system, where impartial jurors are selected from the public at large, and sworn to determine if the evidence presented to them establishes guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
And after a marathon history of trials and appeals and reviews that have gone on for nearly three decades, the Missouri Supreme Court has just issued an execution order and warrant for the execution of one Walter Barton, who was convicted of the 1991 murder of an elderly lady he knew, in her trailer at the trailer park she managed.
There were no known eyewitnesses to the murder, and the conviction was based on circumstantial evidence.
Now, Mr. Barton is sentenced to be executed some 29 years after the crime, and after five trials, four of which resulted in either deadlocked juries that could not reach a verdict, or verdicts resulting in conviction that were set aside based upon prejudicial errors in the trial court, including prosecutorial misconduct and the presentation of questionable jailhouse snitch testimony, where a fellow inmate testified that Mr. Barton purportedly made an admission to him while they were both in jail together.
In the third and most recent appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, the court affirmed the murder conviction and death sentence with four judges voting to affirm and three judges dissenting and noting that the weakness in the evidence of guilt was close on the question of a reversal of Mr. Barton’s conviction altogether, but at minimum clearly called for a reversal of the death sentence that ensued.
Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff, in his dissenting opinion that was joined by two of the other Supreme Court judges who heard and decided the case, said: “From the first mistrial in 1993 through three completed trials, post-conviction proceedings, multiple appeals, there is a trail of mishaps and misdeeds that, taken together, reflect poorly on the criminal justice system.”
Mr. Barton’s execution is scheduled for May 19.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the average time between a death sentence and execution is now more than 20 years. Since 1973, there have been 167 death sentences imposed nationwide that resulted subsequently in the complete exoneration of the accused, including four in the state of Missouri.
And while the jury system we use in these United States is the fairest in the history of the world, we must be ever vigilant to protect the accused from abuses that can lead to injustice, including prosecutorial misconduct, unconstitutional suppression of evidence of innocence, enticed snitch testimony, junk “expert” testimony without credible foundation in science, inadequate defense resources, and police overreaching in the procurement of admissions.
The history of Walter Barton’s case has involved many of these issues.
We shall see if he is still alive on May 20.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.