A Shot in the Arm

A federal appeals court says Darryl Burton might very well be innocent of the 1984 murder of Donald Ball. But there's nothing they can do about it.

By the time the third bullet reached Donald Ball's heart, he was facedown and bleeding into the asphalt. Moments earlier, Ball -- a pusher, a pimp, a hustler -- had navigated his green Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight into the Amoco gas station at the corner of Goodfellow and Delmar boulevards. It was a pleasant late-spring evening in 1984, and though summer's heat had begun to swell, Ball dressed nattily in a gray sweater, pinstripe vest and matching slacks.

Known on the street as "Moe," Donald Ball was a notorious neighborhood gangster. He ordered hits, ran women and ruled his street fiefdom with cold-blooded flair. At the tender age of 26, Ball was already embroiled in a turf war with Jesse Watson, another of the city's would-be warlords. The battle had raged for the better part of two years, and it had cost him: One year earlier, Watson had walked up on him at this same intersection and put a slug in his right shoulder. The bullet had withered Ball's right arm, and on the night of June 4, 1984, he struggled to insert the gas pump's nozzle into his car's tank.

It was about 9:45, and the vapor-lit filling station was busy with its usual mix of paying customers and loafing drunks come to drink a pint along the wall of the abutting VW liquor store. Ball prepaid for $8 worth of gasoline. But as he filled his tank, a man silently approached and fired a bullet through Ball's right arm. Ball turned. He broke into a run. He circled the cashier's island and headed north. Running and firing, his attacker gave chase. Ball sprinted past the cashier's island, past pumps, customers and cars, but as he reached the lot's northern end, a shot to the right thigh brought him down.

Tim Lane
Tim Lane

As Ball lay on the ground, the gunman fired his fatal shot. Entering Ball's lower back, the bullet moved left to right and upward, tearing through his eleventh rib, piercing the spleen, passing through the stomach and diaphragm before puncturing Ball's heart and exiting beneath the fifth rib. The copper-jacketed slug eventually came to rest on the pavement, a few feet to the right of Ball's dying body.

The nightmare of Donald Ball's death was over. Meanwhile, another nightmare was about to begin. Two days into the murder investigation, a witness came forward and told St. Louis homicide detectives he knew the killer. A few days after that, a second witness identified the same man. The killer, they alleged, was Darryl Burton, a local kid out on parole after serving half of a two-year robbery sentence at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City.

Police arrested Burton on June 28, 1984. After a two-day trial the following spring, it took a St. Louis jury less than one hour to find him guilty of capital murder and armed criminal action. Circuit Judge Jack L. Koehr sentenced Burton, then 23 years old, to life in prison.

Burton pleaded not-guilty at his trial, a claim he has maintained for the past twenty years. This is nothing new; like many of the estimated 100,000 inmates in the Missouri prison system, Burton has spent the bulk of his confinement peppering state and federal courts with claims of innocence. But while most such claims are deemed without merit, Burton was granted a hearing before a federal appeals court.

Like other prisoners, he had been emboldened by the recent wave of high-profile exonerations based on DNA and other evidence. Over the past two decades, Burton had marshaled what amounts to a small library of affidavits supporting his innocence claim. One state witness recanted. Other witnesses stepped forward to contradict earlier eyewitness testimony and point the finger of guilt at the person they believe is the culprit. But in Burton's case, there was virtually no physical evidence, let alone DNA. And owing to a 1996 statute, federal appeals courts are finding that they often must deny a prisoner's appeal, even if new evidence points to his innocence.

And indeed, in 2002 the appeals court rejected Burton's petition. The resulting opinion, legal scholars say, is notable only for its candor:

"One cannot read the record in this case without developing a nagging suspicion that the wrong man may have been convicted of capital murder and armed criminal action in a Missouri courtroom," wrote Eighth Circuit Judge Kermit Bye. "A layperson would have little trouble concluding Burton should be permitted to present his evidence of innocence in some forum. Unfortunately, Burton's claims and evidence run headlong into the thicket of impediments erected by courts and by Congress. Burton's legal claims permit him no relief, even as the facts suggest he may well be innocent."

When St. Louis police sergeant Edward Robinson pulled his cruiser onto the Amoco lot the night of June 4, 1984, the milling crowd didn't give him much to work with: One witness had seen a group of men fleeing in a rusted-out brown Buick a block north on Enright Avenue. Another had seen two men jump into a green Chevy parked across Goodfellow. Though detectives interviewed many of the witnesses clustered around the body, none could identify the killer as anything but a "light-skinned" black man with a short Afro who wore a yellow shirt and khaki trousers. While scouring the crime scene, police came upon the one piece of physical evidence they'd produce at trial: the copper-jacketed bullet that lay a few feet from Ball's corpse.

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