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A year ago, Darryl Burton walked out of the Jefferson City Correctional Center wearing state-issued gray pants and a white T-shirt. Today, on the anniversary of his release, he's slipping on a gold suit from Harold Pener.
Tonight, Burton will be honored at the West Side Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. The church's Page Boulevard façade features a mural depicting a black-haired Jesus with his arms spread wide, one hand hovering over the flesh of a halved watermelon. This part of the city has a rough reputation, but on this cooler-than-average August afternoon, kids are in the streets, the Cardinals game is on the radio, and the closest thing to a hustler is a guy selling Michael Jackson tribute shirts from his porch.
Inside, sunlight streams through stained-glass windows and bathes the sanctuary. Purple, white and gold balloons bump one another in the building's aggressive air conditioning. Valerie Thomas, who grew up six doors down from Burton's family, decorated the church in the colors of royalty. She's Burton's girlfriend and, like his growing collection of supporters, she sees him as a symbol, as living proof that God hears our prayers.
On August 29, 2008, Burton was released from prison after serving 24 years of a life sentence for a murder he didn't commit. Some who have witnessed Burton's journey from convict to Christian convert believe that Burton's release was an act of God. But his first year of freedom has been equally miraculous. Less than 48 hours after his release, Burton relocated to Kansas City. Since then, his list of wealthy and powerful supporters — including the family of construction baron J.E. Dunn — would make a mayoral candidate jealous.
At the St. Louis celebration, sitting back as a mere observer isn't an option. Churchgoers wrap newcomers in fierce hugs and encourage clapping and singing. Fervent gospel music melds with the preachers' tremulous, booming voices. Later, the entertainment shifts to a nontraditional mix of rappers, mimes, techno musicians and modern dancers who draw the night out into a four-hour Christian variety show. By the time it's Burton's turn to speak, more than half of the crowd has gone home.
Burton has told his story before countless audiences over the past year, but tonight his voice brims with anger as he relates horrors that he usually leaves out. He talks about the time a prisoner in the yard took a metal pipe to a new inmate's head, declaring, "Welcome to prison, bitch." When he arrives at his usual message, about extinguishing his hatred with forgiveness, he gives off a renewed energy, as though plugged into a holy electrical socket.
After the party, Burton will come back to earth. He didn't just survive prison — he met other innocents there, too, victims of a flawed justice system. Now, he says, it's his calling to do something about it.
By now, many St. Louisans are familiar with the facts of Burton's case. In June 1984, not far from West Side Missionary Baptist, Donald "Moe" Ball was gunned down as he gassed up his green Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight at an Amoco station at the corner of Delmar and Goodfellow boulevards. Ball had been shot in the arm in this same neighborhood in 1983 by Jesse Watson, a rival in an ongoing turf war.
A month later, on the word of a street informant and a prison snitch, police arrested Burton, 22, a parolee who had spent two years in Jefferson City's Algoa Correctional Center for burglary. The two witnesses claimed to have seen Burton kill Ball, despite reports from other witnesses that the shooter was a light-skinned black man less than five-feet-five-inches tall. Burton is five-foot-ten and so dark-complected that his playground nickname was "Lights Out."
Burton pleaded not guilty. His public defender, Dorothy Hirzy, met with Burton just once before the two-day trial. In a sidebar wih prosecuting attorney Anthony Gonzalez just before closing arguments, Hirzy agreed not to mention Watson, the man who had shot Ball a year earlier.
The prison snitch, Claudex Simmons, was a 24-year-old career criminal who routinely coughed up information on crimes in exchange for favorable treatment from the courts. He had been near the Amoco the night of Ball's slaying and, when interviewed, originally told the police that he had seen nothing. His ability to identify the Amoco shooter suddenly improved when he was later arrested and charged with second-degree robbery. In Burton's trial, Simmons testified that his "deal" with prosecutors would allow him to serve one year in prison instead of three years; in fact, he faced a much harsher fifteen years as a persistent offender, something that Burton's attorney, Hirzy, failed to point out. After testifying against Burton, Simmons was released on probation with time served.
The jury took less than an hour to convict Burton of capital murder in a case that lacked physical evidence and motive. Circuit Judge Jack L. Koehr sentenced him to life in prison. Before he was taken from the courtroom, Burton says, he told the judge that someday he would prove the court had condemned the wrong man.
Burton accessorizes his muted wardrobe with a crucifix on a chain, a gold cross pin and a black Kangol hat tipped backward — "like Samuel L. Jackson," he says. His frame is fit; he has lived as a nondrinking, nonsmoking vegetarian since his teens. He radiates calm and humility, deflecting most compliments. Credit goes to God first, then to his "angels," the people he says aided him when he was locked up.