Catholics protest Missouri execution of death row prisoner

walter barton Walter Barton. / Missouri Department of Corrections

Despite objections from Catholic groups, a Missouri death row inmate died by lethal injection May 19, in the first execution carried out in the United States since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Catholics in the state had protested the governor's decision to allow the execution of Walter Barton to take place, with the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) helping to gather over 5,000 signatures on a petition asking Governor Mike Parson to stop the execution.

The Washington D.C.-based Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), which advocates for an end to the death penalty, also condemned the decision to go ahead with the execution.

"Our nation has gone to great lengths to save lives and prevent unnecessary loss of life during the COVID-19 crisis," Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, CMN's Executive Director, said May 20.

"It's tragically contradictory that Missouri put a man to death amidst the herculean efforts we see daily to protect life. This execution was wrong-headed and unconscionable."

Barton, 64, had been convicted of fatally stabbing an 81-year-old woman, Gladys Kuehler, in 1991.

His death sentence had been overturned and reinstated several times, local media report. There were two mistrials in his case before he was first sentenced to death in 1994; the state Supreme Court later overturned his death sentence, but he was sentenced again in 1998. Finally, after a judge ordered a new trial, he was sentenced to death a third time in 2006.

Barton has maintained his innocence.

No one had been executed in the U.S. since Nathaniel Woods was put to death in Alabama on March 5, the Associated Press reported.

The Missouri Catholic Conference noted the morning of May 19 that Barton had already spent 26 years on death row, and is now confined to a wheelchair and has a severe neurological disorder due to a traumatic brain injury.

Anyone entering the prison where Barton was to be executed would have their temperatures taken and be offered face coverings to avoid possible exposure to the coronavirus, a Missouri Department of Corrections spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

No relatives or supporters of Barton were present at his execution, the AP reports.

At least 15 states, including Ohio and Texas, have stayed, rescheduled, or granted reprieves for executions during the pandemic. Texas, in particular, has already delayed six because of the pandemic; the next one is set for June 16.

Attorneys have argued that the pandemic makes it difficult to properly conduct investigations and appeals, and could allow for unnecessary exposure to the virus.

Missouri has executed at least 89 people since 1976, the last one taking place during October 2019.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II personally asked then-Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan that the execution of Darrell Mease, a prisoner who had been convicted for murder, not go forward. Carnahan subsequently commuted Mease's sentence to life in prison without parole.

Pope Francis in August 2018 ordered a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, updating it to describe the death penalty as "inadmissible" and an "attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

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The revised text cites "an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes," as well as the development of "more effective systems of detention…which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption."

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