“This is a glorious time to be alive,” said Darryl Burton. “I got to vote for the first time n and it was for a black man as president of the United States!”
Burton faces the new year of 2009 with the feeling of a fresh start for a profound, personal reason, in addition to the inauguration of the new president on Jan. 20.
After being robbed of 24 years of his life by the judicial system, he recently was exonerated of the crimes for which he was wrongly convicted.
Burton was released from Jefferson City Correctional Center on August 29 n the same day Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for U.S. president.
“Everything is new to me, everything,” Burton said.
“I am overwhelmed by a different variety of emotions.”
Since his release, Burton has taken his story to many different audiences across the country. They see a passionate, energetic man who wants to make sure that society knows there are hundreds of innocent men and women imprisoned in Missouri.
“There are still people behind bars who are innocent,” Burton said. “I’m not the only one.”
Those who meet this remarkable man wonder out loud about his lack of bitterness toward the criminal justice system, but Burton doesn’t have time to wallow in bitterness or self-pity.
He has a lot of catching up to do and, at 47 years of age, he’s still got a lot of living to do. His family and friends have given him coming-home parties in his hometown of St. Louis and his new town of Kansas City. He is meeting new nieces and nephews and making new friends.
Still, he can never get back the time he lost.
His father, Walter Burton, died of lung cancer early in Burton’s judicial journey in 1985 while he was in jail awaiting trial, and his grandmother, Georgia Loggins (who visited him in prison until her health failed), died in 1990 at 74 years old.
“Twenty-five years out of his life was 25 years out of mine too,” said his mother Pearline Burton.
She always believed her son was innocent, though she was realistic about the ruthlessness of the criminal justice system. She said it was his tenacity and upbeat personality that strengthened her faith in his promise that one day he would be free.
‘Death by incarceration’
On June 4, 1984, as the crack cocaine drug wars raged in St. Louis, Donald “Moe” Ball was gunned down while pumping gas at the Amoco station located at the corner of Goodfellow and Delmar boulevards. Ball was a well-known drug dealer embroiled in a turf war with another drug dealer, Jesse Watson. A year earlier at the same gas station, Watson had put a bullet in Ball. The shooting was not fatal but permanently injured Ball’s right arm.
There were witnesses and acquaintances of both parties who said that Watson was the gunman that summer night. However, St. Louis police never pursued Watson as a person of interest.
Out of the blue, he said, Burton (age 22) was fingered by two individuals claiming to be witnesses. There was no physical evidence linking him to the murder; a slug was found at the murder scene, but no weapon was ever recovered. A jealousy motive for Burton regarding a girlfriend was investigated by police, but not presented at trial. Prosecutor Anthony Gonzales presented no motive at all.
The case went to trial in March 1985. One witness, Claudex Simmons, giving testimony in a plea bargain exchange for a lighter sentence, admitted to two convictions when he actually had at least seven felonies and five misdemeanors on his record.
These facts came out only after Simmons crashed into the car of Affton Fire Chief Gerald Buehne in 2005 while fleeing from police, killing Buehne. Simmons was then convicted of felony murder and armed criminal action; he is now serving a life sentence.
Practically every aspect of Simmons’ previous statement to police was changed on the witness stand.
The other alleged eyewitness was Eddie Walker Jr., who claimed to be drinking near the murder scene and to have observed the entire incident. Years later, abundant evidence would be produced that Walker was a chronic liar who was not at the crime scene at the time of the shooting and had vision so poor that he could not have seen the shooting from where he claimed to be sitting had he in fact been sitting there.
In spite of witnesses’ unreliability, conflicting testimonies and departures from previous statements, the jury took less than an hour to reach their guilty verdict. In March 1985, Circuit Judge Jack L. Koerhr sentenced Burton to life without parole for 50 years for capital murder, and 25 consecutive years for armed criminal action.
“I got death by incarceration instead of death by lethal injection,” Burton said.
Five months later, Burton was shocked to receive an unsolicited affidavit from Simmons recanting his story and admitting that he had lied and perjured himself to save his own hide. With this piece of evidence in hand, Burton threw himself into law books with a vengeance and began filing his own legal motions. Simultaneously, he wrote hundreds of letters proclaiming his innocence to media outlets and elected officials.
After first contacting them in 1990, Centurion Ministries (a New Jersey-based group that takes on wrongful conviction cases) finally came to his defense in 2000. Its track record includes freeing Ellen Reasonover, another case of wrongful conviction in St. Louis; Reasonover had served 17 years before she was exonerated.
In January 2007, Burton and his attorneys filed a petition for the writ of habeas corpus in Cole County Circuit Court. On August 18, 2008, Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan overturned the convictions, ruling that “the failure to disclose Simmons’ background rendered Mr. Burton’s trial fundamentally unfair” and violated his right to due process. The ruling further stated that the “plausible and persuasive evidence” would have proven his innocence.
Ed Postawko, a prosecutor in the St. Louis office, believes the jury had it right the first time. “I'm not convinced an innocent man was convicted of the crime,” he said.
‘Not bitter, better’
Burton decided to start his new life in Kansas City, away from the city that stole his youth.
“I didn’t want be in a position when I was in St. Louis where something like that could happen to me again,” he said of avoiding St. Louis to avoid the St. Louis police.
“You don’t expect lightning to strike twice in the same place, but you never know.”
Burton is back in St. Louis this week, visiting family. He is carrying a newspaper article about his prison release and wrongful conviction everywhere he goes, just in case he is pulled over or confronted by a cop.
“If I get stopped, I’d like to have that,” he said.
His re-entry into the community has been helped by a number of local organizations and individuals in Kansas City. Susie Roling at Operation Breakthrough helped him to obtain a driver’s license and other credentials. Attorney Steven Stolze assisted him with a used car. The Midwest Innocence Project located an apartment for him.
Recently, Brandon Plavka saw Burton on television talking about his travesty of justice and was inspired by his determination. Plavka, an accounts manager at Maxim Staffing Solutions in Overland Park, Kansas, gave him a part-time job.
Burton starts his new job as a nursing recruiter on Jan. 15.
“Brandon saw me on TV and he tracked me down,” Burton said.
“He said he saw I wasn’t bitter and that I deserved a chance. I’m not bitter, I’m better.”
Burton knows his transition to civilian life will be rocky. When he applies for jobs, there is a big gap in his employment history to explain. Burton is also grappling with mastering the simplest new technology, like a cell phone.
“I didn’t even know how to turn on a TV,” Burton said. “I am like a two-year-old.”
He sometimes has to be reminded that he doesn’t need to ask for permission in order to make a move, a result of his lengthy incarceration under the ever-present control of prison guards.
His younger brother Barry Burton, who moved with him to Kansas City, has been a great help to him in all things n as has been his Bible, which he studied closely while behind bars.
He said the Bible taught him something about being born again.
“It’s surreal to wait all these years and then finally have a chance to be vindicated, to be exonerated,” he said.
“I have a whole new lease on life. It’s like feeling born again.”
Darryl Burton is available for speaking engagements and mentoring opportunities. Email him at email@example.com, call him at 816-506-4673 or send well wishes to Darryl Burton, P.O. Box 34406, N. Kansas City MO 64116.