On Tuesday, May 19, 2020, the state of Missouri killed Walter Barton. Yes, in the middle of a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes, in the midst of all the uncertainty and chaos, the state of Missouri was intent on killing. Bringing together the required people, trying to minimize the risk of death to all others while they performed and witnessed the ritual of death for Walter Barton, the state of Missouri had a singular focus. When killing is the priority, all other concerns become secondary and vengeance becomes the order of the day.
It took five trials to convict Walter Barton and sentence him to death. One of the original prosecutors had to recuse himself prior to the final trial due to alleged misconduct. In the end Barton was convicted based on equal parts junk science and jailhouse snitch testimony, two of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in this country. Some of the jurors now say they would not be comfortable with a death sentence having seen new evidence emerge. A former Missouri Supreme Court justice called the case a trail of mishaps and misdeeds that, taken together, reflect poorly on the criminal justice system. It is very likely Barton was an innocent man. When killing is the priority, pesky details like probable innocence are insignificant.
Barton was issued a stay by a district court the Friday before the execution date, but saw it vacated by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals two days later because they saw no likelihood of success for his defense. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion not at all uncommon in capital cases. I went through it myself before my own father was executed; in my book I describe coming within hours of his execution before a stay that was ultimately lifted a year later. Like prison systems around the country, Missouri has suspended visitation in the midst of the pandemic. As the date approached, whatever friends and family may have wanted to visit Barton were restricted. The legal rollercoaster and curtailed visitation should be seen as cruel and unusual in any circumstance. When killing is the priority, basic decency takes a back seat.
Some are surprised at the 8th Circuit decision, and the unfavorable decisions of various appeals courts over the years after Barton’s conviction. But those who have observed the system understand that the appeals are all about the process and not as much about the truth. The late Justice Antonin Scalia famously said mere factual innocence is no reason not to carry out a death sentence properly reached. I have personally spoken to death row exonerees and their lawyers who say that factual innocence is the most difficult way to get someone off death row. They are much better off if some procedural error were committed which would allow them to get a new trial. When killing is the priority, process is more important than truth.
When even the state of Texas, with by far more executions than any other state, decided the public health risk involved in carrying out an execution is too great, one wonders why Missouri would charge full speed ahead toward the execution chamber. In fact, the drugs used in lethal injection have a medical purpose; states have been requested to relinquish those drugs to the medical community during this medical crisis, yet none have done so. States want to be ready to kill just as soon as circumstances make it palatable to do so. In Missouri, however, they simply couldn’t wait for a more opportune time. In the face of withering criticism from around the nation and around the world, Missouri decided this was no time to back down from killing. How did Governor Mike Parson, and the state justice and corrections officials under him, decide that an execution must take place now? When killing is the priority, the system presses on.
How does a state that is reportedly 77% Christian choose to carry out the ritualized killing of a likely innocent man in the middle of a pandemic crisis? As Shane Claiborne often says, the death penalty persists in this country not in spite of Christians but because of Christians. When Christians ignore Jesus and misquote Old Testament scriptures in a way that baffles our Jewish brothers and sisters, almost anything can be justified. When Christians hide behind Romans 13, misunderstanding the content and the context, any government atrocity can be justified. Indeed, passages like that in Romans are selectively applied and only mentioned when the believer agrees with the government. It’s a dangerous game when political viewpoints drive the interpretation of scripture rather than the other way around. The red letters in my Bible make it difficult to accept any execution, much less that of a man who is likely innocent, in the midst of a national crisis. When killing is the priority, the words and actions of Jesus Christ fade into the background, replaced by the shouting of the mob.