Thursday, July 13, 2006

Good Veins

By: The_Bell
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Rocky Barton was put to death yesterday morning at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility by means of lethal injection. Prison officials used a new technique, designed to help prevent vein collapse and ensure a quicker, less painful, and more humane death. For his part, Barton was never worried. "I got good veins," he had reassured anyone who would listen to him.

Barton was the twenty-second inmate executed since the state of Ohio resumed use of the death penalty in 1999. A review of his convoluted case may help illustrate why capital punishment remains such a murky and controversial topic.

Barton died for the aggravated murder of his fourth wife, Kimbirli Jo. Barton had a long record of domestic violence. He served eight years in Kentucky on an attempted murder charge for beating and stabbing his second wife. He was paroled but returned to prison for another year after his third wife accused him of threatening and assaulting her while she was trying to divorce him.

Barton had known Kimbirli since high school. They married while he was still in prison. Within months of his release, Barton was arrested in 2002 for threatening his new wife and pushing her around. She refused to file charges at the time. Four months later, in January 2003, she had decided enough was enough and announced she was leaving him.

Barton went into a rage. He made numerous threatening calls to his wife over the next several hours while she was at work. However, she eventually become convinced it was safe to return to their home to pick up some of her things.

When Kimbirli returned to the house with her youngest daughter, Barton went into the garage and emerged with a shotgun. He fired at Kimbirli from four to six feet away, hitting her in the shoulder. She tried to crawl toward her daughter but he then came closer and shot her again in the back from one to two feet away. Barton then knelt down, put the shotgun under his chin, and fired again, inflicting a serious, disfiguring but non-fatal wound on himself.

Barton's charge carried a death penalty specification because he had previously been convicted of attempted murder. After a jury found him guilty of both the murder charge and death penalty specification, Barton refused to allow his attorneys to present mitigating evidence during the penalty phase and made an unsworn statement to the jury asking that he be given the death penalty.

"My attorneys advised me to beg for my life," Barton said then. "I can't do that. I strongly believe in the death penalty. And for the ruthless, cold-blooded act that I committed, if I was sitting over there, I'd hold out for the death penalty."

The jury subsequently recommended a sentence of death and the judge so ordered it.

Then, in May 2005, a prison psychiatrist diagnosed Barton as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and severe depression. He received medication and treatment for these conditions. In September 2005, he requested his attorney to appeal his conviction to the Ohio State Supreme Court. He had experienced a change of mind, his attorney explained. He was "think[ing] clearer than he ever has" and "he wants to live."

The Ohio Supreme Court was inclined to hear the appeal. Justice Paul Pfeifer asked the Warren County Prosecutor if she was asking the "legal system to aid an assisted suicide. That's the feel I'm getting from this case."

In 1999, the Court had declared in State v. Ashworth, that when the defendant waives all mitigating evidence in a capital case, the trial court must engage in a dialogue with the defendant to be sure that he is making that waiver knowingly and voluntarily.

But in the case of Barton, the Court ruled by a 5-2 majority that this standard did not apply because the defendant had not waived mitigating evidence in the guilt phase of his trial and had addressed the jury during the penalty phase. Dissenters seriously questioned that statement's validity as mitigation and held that "a competency hearing should be required any time a capital defendant waives his or her right to present mitigation during the penalty phase." The decision was issued in April 2006.

On June 6, 2006, Barton's attorney again petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court, this time for a hearing to determine Barton's competency. He again cited a prison evaluation, which said that Barton was suffering from depression, hallucinations and delusional thinking.

But Barton had undergone another change of mind. He had refused to speak with anyone from the Parole Board in May. At his clemency hearing, on June 16, he sent the Board a letter stating he was not seeking clemency and did not wish to delay his fate any further. At that same hearing, both of Kimbirli Barton's daughters expressed their desire to see their mother's killer die. The prosecutor called Kimbirli's death a "planned and calculated crime," and said Barton was "a dangerous, dangerous man who has an extreme, deep-seated hatred of women. He planned for a long time that he was going to kill her."

On June 23, the Ohio Supreme Court, by a 6-1 majority, ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Barton by a Warren County judge because Barton had waived his right to appeal the death sentence. The court did not order Barton's execution delayed, calling instead for a prompt hearing.

Three days later, on June 26, the Ohio Parole Board unanimously recommended Governor Bob Taft should not grant him Barton clemency, calling him a "repeat violent offender of serious magnitude."

A few days later, Barton made a surprise announcement from his prison cell that, although he still wanted to die for it, shooting his wife had been "a spur-of-the-moment thing" and that he had planned to kill only himself. "It was an act of anger," Barton said. "Evidently it was not too thought out, or I wouldn't be where I am today."

On July1, he gave a one-on-one interview with a representative for Ohio reporters in which he repeated that claim. "Just killing Kim. That just come by the spur of the moment. That was not planned, calculated, designed. I planned on killing myself in front of her. When I come out of the garage, there she was, I pointed the gun at her and I shot. I don't know why I did. Can't tell you what was going through my mind at the time."

Barton revealed he had gone to great length to avoid showing any remorse at his trail, in order to ensure he received the death penalty. "If I showed any remorse at the trial . . . If I'd a cried at that trial and showed remorse, I wouldn't have gotten the death penalty. I wanted the death penalty. I wanted to die ever since I killed Kim."

Barton also exhibited an almost mocking dislike for the prosecutor in his case. "She's taking credit for sending me to death row. I sent myself to death row and now she's taken credit for the quick time between the crime and execution. I'm the one that dropped my appeals. That woman ain't done nothing but run her mouth."

Two days later, on July 3, he told the Warren County Judge at his competency hearing that he had "faked it" when he told prison doctors last year he was seeing things and hearing voices. He claimed he had done so in a failed attempt to be moved to a psychological prison unit nearer to his family so they could visit him more.

On July 5, the Judge declined a psychiatric evaluation to determine Barton's competency. "He gave a consistent understanding of the proximity and finality of his death," the Judge wrote. "He consistently gave an explanation as to why his execution made sense to him. This included his own feelings of guilt and remorse as well as the desire to bring finality and closure to his victim's family as well as his own."

Then, on July10, Governor Bob Taft removed the final roadblock for Barton by refusing to halt his execution. In a short statement, Taft simply stated, "I can find no compelling reason to grant clemency" and concluded by saying, "May God bless the family and friends of Kimbirli Barton."

In his final statement yesterday, Barton turned to Kimbirli's son and two daughters and said: "I'm sorry for what I done, sorry for killing your momma and for what I done to you."

The execution seemed to bring out a bizarre array of emotions among family members. Kimbirli's son held no compassion for Barton. "I hope [Barton] rots in hell, that's for sure," he said. "He's going straight to hell. If he's not, then I don't want to go to heaven."

Yet Kimbirli's two daughters, who had begged for Barton's death at his parole hearing, were more circumspect. "This is closure for our family, and I will also mourn the loss of Rocky Barton," one of them said. "He was a member of our family. It's not like we're celebrating a death here today." They also stated they believed Barton's apology was sincere. "I'm sure he meant those things – he did love us."

Barton's own relatives said they accepted his decision to die. But his father read a prepared statement in which he likened his son's death to assisted suicide and chastised prosecutors for being "cruel and boastful."

The chief prosecutor seemed almost to agree with the suicide angle, without actually using that word. "The system is working the way it's supposed to work," she had previously said. "At a certain point, the system has to recognize the right of [Barton] to decide what he wants to do, where he wants to go with his life."

What is the right answer regarding Barton? He was clearly guilty of killing his wife. He had a long record of violent offenses. He wanted to die, the State wanted him to die, his victim's family wanted him to die, and his own family supported his wishes. Prosecutors had argued against the "drain on the State" by keeping him alive and characterized failure to comply with his wish to die as "cruel and unusual punishment."

Barton clearly understood the difference between right and wrong. He felt extreme guilt over Kimbirli's death. Severe depression among death row inmates is hardly uncommon but when did Barton's really begin and how did it affect his judgement. He certainly proved his judgement could be mercurial during his three-year odyssey to execution and we know he was lying at least some of the time, although it would help a great deal if we could know for sure when exactly that was. Indeed, Barton's long-standing record of domestic violence is itself a testament to deep-rooted psychological problems.

None of this is to suggest that Barton deserves absolution for his crimes but the State of Ohio was generally only too willing to allow him to waive the usual legal procedures in order to hasten his demise. Barton clearly desired death but was that really the calm and informed decision of a rational mind or was it an emotional reaction of a psyche wracked by grief, despair, and impulsivity?

Barton was not a nice person by any measure, yet he retained enough basic humanity at the end to show remorse for his actions and touch some of people most victimized by them. Even if he legitimately deserved to die, was he legitimately able to make that decision for himself – or did convenience and expediency get substituted for a desire to see justice done by those responsible for his fate?

"The quality of mercy is not strained," says the Bard. It wasn't for Rocky Barton. Death was a mercy from his perspective and he had good veins. The problem may be that this was also the very quality that most singled him out as a worthy candidate for execution by the State.