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.

Mary Alice Brown, who was married to Walker from 1965 to 1971, offered a similar assessment. "In addition to being a drunk, Eddie had bad eyes. He wore glasses, but most of the time he didn't use them. If what he was looking at wasn't up close, he couldn't see it," Brown writes in her affidavit, dated the same day as Washington's. "Eddie was a meek man. He was not a strong person. He was the type of person who could easily be led saying something that wasn't true."

McCloskey and Clark also located Danny Pennington, who had lived with Walker at the time of Donald Ball's murder. In a May 3, 2001, affidavit, Pennington recalls that on the night of the murder he and Walker had set out on foot for the VW liquor store when they ran into a neighbor, Freddie Gates, and stopped under "an old shade tree" to chat.

"Suddenly, we heard shots," Pennington states in his affidavit. "[We] trotted toward the alley in between Freddie's back yard and the Amoco station and peeked around the corner, because the old wooden fence was so tall we could not see across the fence into the station lot."

Tim Lane
Tim Lane

Peering around the fence, Pennington recalls, the men witnessed a commotion on the lot. Soon afterward, he and Walker continued on their way to the liquor store. "Eddie Walker never told me that he had talked to any police officers, had identified anyone as the shooter, and never told me that he had testified in a murder trial," Pennington states. "If Eddie Walker said that he saw the shooting and could identify the shooter that night, he was lying. It is physically impossible for any of us to see the lot and the area of the shooting from where we were standing."

Rounding out his investigation of Eddie Walker, McCloskey finally found the street informant known as Tampa Red. "Police Detective Riley's police report has been read to me, about introducing Eddie Walker to Riley," reads a May 2, 2001 affidavit signed by Lester Jackson White, a.k.a. Tampa Red. "I do not remember anyone in the neighborhood by the name of Eddie Walker. I have seen a photo of Eddie Walker and I do not recognize the face of that person."

The state never produced any physical evidence linking Darryl Burton to the murder; the prosecution's case had rested entirely on the eyewitness testimonies of Claudex Simmons and Eddie Walker. Now the former had recanted and admitted perjury, while the latter's character, credibility and eyewitness testimony had been impugned by those who knew him well.

Only the mystery of Jesse Watson remained.

Watson's specter had hung over Darryl Burton's trial and confinement. Eddie Walker testified that he'd been drinking outside the liquor store with a man named "Jessie," whose last name he didn't know. When public defender Dorothy Hirzy asked whether he might be referring to "Jessie [sic] Watson," Walker replied: "I don't know Jessie's last name. I couldn't say."

Watson's name came up one other time during the trial. In a sidebar discussion before closing arguments, prosecutor Anthony Gonzalez asked that Hirzy be prevented from bringing up the fact that Jesse Watson had, at the very same Amoco station one year before the murder, shot Donald Ball in the right arm. "I don't intend to bring up the fact that Jessie Watkins [sic] shot this man before," replied Hirzy. "I have no intention of mentioning that."

Now McCloskey and Clark had obtained an affidavit from Michael Smith, at the time an inmate at Potosi Correctional Institution. "I have known Jesse Watson my whole life. Jesse and I were like brothers. He and I were raised together in the same neighborhood, and were constant companions until he was killed on June 26, 1986," reads Smith's affidavit, signed February 23, 2001. "When 'Moe' (Donald Ball) was shot to death, I was doing time in Federal Prison. One of the first people that I saw when I was released in February 1985 was my 'brother', Jesse Watson. Jesse told me he killed Moe. He said he ran up on him and shot him dead."

That same day, the investigators obtained another affidavit, this one from Warren Hentley, an inmate at the Eastern Missouri Correctional Center: "Jesse [Watson] personally told me that he shot and killed Donald Ball. When Donald Ball was shot to death on the gas station lot in June, 1984, I was in a St. Louis City Halfway house. Shortly after my release, I visited Jesse Watson. It was during this visit that Jesse Watson told me that 'I got that nigger, Moe. He's dead.'"

Known in judicial circles as "the great writ of liberty," the writ of habeas corpus dates back to England and the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Translated literally as "you have the body," federal habeas corpus has long been the final stop on a prisoner's quest for judicial relief. Its sole function is to determine whether a prisoner's constitutional rights were violated during trial.

As one of the many "fail safes" built into the judicial system, federal habeas corpus is available only after all state court remedies have been exhausted. But while the bar for granting the writ has always been exceedingly high -- the federal court will not consider new exculpatory evidence until the prisoner proves that but for constitutional error, no reasonable jurist would have found him guilty -- the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), signed into law by President Bill Clinton, raised that bar significantly higher.

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