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.

When Ball's cousin, Cynthia Whitfield, arrived at the filling station to identify the body, police picked up another lead. She told a detective that one year earlier a man named Jesse Watson had tried to kill Ball at this very spot. Watson had skipped town after the shooting, she said, but had recently returned. Word was he'd been threatening to finish the job. The story would be repeated to homicide detectives the next day by Cynthia's mother, Brenda Whitfield.

Two days after the murder, police sergeant Herbert Riley was flagged down by a low-level informant he'd cultivated for years. According to Riley's report, which names the informant only by his handle, "Tampa Red," the snitch was accompanied by Eddie Walker Jr., a heavy-drinking National Guardsman who'd recently returned from duty in Panama. Walker told the sergeant that on the night of the shooting he'd been drinking gin outside VW and had seen Ball pull onto the lot. He'd seen the attacker cross from the south side of Delmar, chase down Ball and shoot him. Walker went so far as to describe the killer's getaway car in specific detail. It was, he said, a blue 1976 Buick.

But there was more. Walker said he could identify the killer: He'd known him for ten years. He also was willing to testify.

Tim Lane
Tim Lane

The next day detective Stephen Hobbs contacted Claudex Simmons, who flipped burgers at a McDonald's restaurant across Delmar from the Amoco station. Simmons told the detective that on the night of the murder he'd stopped at VW after work to buy rum and Coke. As he left the store, he said, he'd heard three gunshots. But that was it: He hadn't seen the assailant.

At age 24, Claudex Simmons was a petty thief who'd racked up multiple felonies. Months earlier he'd been released from Algoa Correctional Center, where he'd served time with Darryl Burton. And on June 11, 1984 -- four days after his initial interview with police -- he was back in jail on an attempted-robbery charge.

Simmons asked to speak to someone from Homicide: He wanted to talk about the murder of Donald Ball.

While in custody, Simmons told investigators a new story. He said he'd seen Donald Ball flee his killer on the night of the murder. He'd seen Ball fall to the ground. He'd seen Ball's assailant -- wearing blue jeans, his hair in cornrows -- stand over the victim, put the handgun in his shirt pocket and run north onto Goodfellow.

After viewing a series of photographs, Simmons identified the same man Eddie Walker had a few days earlier: Darryl Burton.

The trial of Darryl Burton began on March 25, 1985. Poorly attended and with scant press, the two-day proceeding offered little in the way of rhetorical flourish. With bland tenacity, Assistant Circuit Attorney Anthony Gonzalez trotted out a series of witnesses who were unable to link Burton to the murder. Some had heard shots but had not seen the killer. Others had seen the shooter but, like eyewitness Carolyn Linsay, could recall only that the killer "was wearing a pale yellow T-shirt and a pair of khaki pants." Gonzalez offered only a single piece of physical evidence: the copper-jacketed slug.

It was not until the state called Eddie Walker Jr. that the prosecution produced a witness who could positively identify Burton as the killer. The National Guardsman had initially told investigators that on the night of the murder he'd been sipping a half-pint of gin outside VW with a man named "Jessie." Walker told police he'd known the man for nearly five years, but didn't know his last name.

That wasn't the only hole in Eddie Walker's story. In the police report and at trial, Sergeant Herbert Riley stated that he met Walker through the informant "Tampa Red." During his deposition, Walker had flatly denied knowing anyone by the name "Tampa Red." But he revised his story at trial. "Well, I didn't know Tampa Red, but we had another name for him," Walker testified when asked who had introduced him to police. "We used to call him 'Blue-Eyed Soul Brother.'"

During his initial interview with police, Walker told investigators he'd seen the murderer cross Delmar from the south. He also stated that he'd seen the killer chase down Ball and shoot him. At trial, however, Walker's story shifted. "Do you recall telling detective Riley that the person who did this shooting walked from the south side of Delmar?" asked public defender Dorothy Hirzy during cross-examination.

"No, I did not tell him that," said Walker, testifying now that he'd become aware of the melee only when he heard gunshots.

Hirzy pressed Walker, asking the witness if he remembered telling Riley he'd seen the killer approach, shoot Ball and flee in a blue 1976 Buick.

"No, I didn't say that," Walker responded.

Instead Walker now testified that he'd been drinking near the liquor store. His back had been to the parking lot when he heard the shots. The murderer had fled on foot, he said, running west on Delmar.

When the prosecutor asked him to identify Darryl Burton in the courtroom by describing his clothes, Walker said, "He's wearing a blue jacket, blue shirt."

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