Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "…in this world nothing can be said to be certain but two things: death and taxes." True to form, the government remains mired in both enterprises, despite the presence of an ongoing global pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
As the majority of the country works to save lives from the coronavirus, and as states face coming budget shortfalls, some states are still devoting resources to carrying out executions.
This month, Missouri killed Walter "Arkie" Barton, marking the country's first execution since the COVID-19 crisis began. Most states halted these proceedings early on, noting their inability to thoroughly carry out the appellate process with their court systems currently down. Even Texas, which has been responsible for half of the country's dwindling number of executions over the past five years, has temporarily shuttered its execution chamber.
Not only did Missouri decide that carrying out an execution was worth the public health risk the proceeding itself entailed, they also likely killed an innocent man. Barton maintained his innocence throughout the 29 years he spent on death row. His final words before being killed at the hands of his government were: "I, Walter 'Arkie' Barton, am innocent and they are executing an innocent man!!"
Aside from Barton's personal statements, there were other indicators of innocence around the case. He was convicted of killing an elderly woman, Gladys Kuehler, who operated a mobile home park. Barton had previously rented from Kuehler and was at the park the night of her attack visiting a neighbor and Kuehler's granddaughter. Together, they happened upon the crime scene, meaning he had a pretty sound alibi for the evening.
He was charged for the crime due to the presence of some blood spatter on his clothing, blood spatter that he maintained must have gotten there when he pulled Kuehler's granddaughter back from the body. This, and little else, was used to convict him and send him to death row.
It should be noted here that blood spatter analysis is one of many junk sciences that have been presented to juries as concrete evidence. Such was the case in Barton's trial where "experts" claimed he could have only gotten this type of evidence on his shirt by stabbing the victim. It's utter hogwash, and he wouldn't be the first innocent person to lose his life based off bogus forensics.
In the weeks leading up to his execution, several of the jurors who sentenced him to die signed affidavits asserting that they would not have support the death sentence had they been given proper information on the fallibility of blood spatter analysis. The Innocence Project also attempted to prevent this execution citing unreliable evidence and concerns over the state's previous handling of innocence cases. None of that was enough to convince the courts or the governor to intervene.
As I've written before, it is very difficult to extricate an innocent person from our legal system. Even when there is overwhelming evidence, the machine works against reversal and release.
Barton's case isn't the only one of concern working its way through the death penalty system's coils during COVID-19 either. In neighboring Oklahoma, the case of Julius Jones continues to garner national attention as the clock ticks down. Jones' case contains many of the usual corrupt storylines — inconsistencies in the prosecution's case, racially charged statements by a juror, and very shaky evidence. He has been on death row for 19 years and has exhausted his appeals.
Oklahoma, which has wrongfully convicted at least 10 people in its death penalty history (out of 113 executions) and had to take a break from carrying out executions because it kept botching them, recently announced it intends to start executing people again. Oklahoma has the third largest death row in the country, and Jones along with 16 others could soon see execution dates scheduled.
We already know that the death penalty wastes tens of millions of dollars. It isn't a deterrent, frequently convicts the wrong person, and is based almost entirely on the location of the crime, followed by the socioeconomic and racial status of the defendants and victims. It's a nonsensical program, even in the best of times, that is driven purely by emotion — which is not the way we should set public policy. But watching states twist themselves in knots to carry out executions, as their budgets collapse and all hands-on deck are needed to address the looming economic crisis, really highlights the ineptitude of government.
There's enough death in the age of COVID. The government should not be contributing to it.
Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.
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