He says he spent his first dozen years in prison simmering with rage, another ticking time bomb in a population of short fuses. He hated the snitches, the judge, the jury, the prosecutors and his public defender. Still, he says, his anger rarely manifested outwardly. His only write-ups were for minor infractions, he says, such as wearing clothes not clearly marked with his prisoner I.D. — 153063 — or squeezing in a few extra minutes on the phone after a guard told him that his time was up.

Rather than scuffling in the yard, he spent his days in the prison's law library, bent on proving his innocence. The Latin terms he stumbled over seemed like further proof of a widespread conspiracy to keep black men of little means locked up forever. An envelope he received in the mail gave him hope; it contained an affidavit dated August 7, 1985, in which the snitch, Simmons, admitted — apparently of his own volition — that his testimony against Burton had been perjury.

With traditional state court remedies exhausted, Burton turned to writing letters. He estimates that he wrote 600 of them — to presidents, senators, U.S. representatives, nonprofit organizations, even Oprah Winfrey. (Oprah producers contacted him a few months ago, he says, but his story didn't fit their criteria.)

On the day of Burton's release, a party was held for him at West Side Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.
On the day of Burton's release, a party was held for him at West Side Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.
Burton's girlfriend Valerie Thomas attended the celebration.
Burton's girlfriend Valerie Thomas attended the celebration.

In 1998, Burton wrote his most important letter: to Jesus.

Though his mother and grandmother were strong believers, Burton had shrugged off religion. He remembers his grandmother's words: "Son, there will come a time in your life when no one can help you but Jesus. I hope you remember to call on him."

Burton's trial had only confirmed his skepticism. "They [the witnesses] raised their right hand, and I don't know if they put their hand on a Bible or not, but they said they swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothin' but the truth, so help me God, and was lying," Burton says. "And I'm saying, 'Well why didn't God strike 'em dead right there?'"

So many other letters had gone unanswered. What harm was there in writing one more?

"If you're real, then you know, like I know, that I'm innocent," Burton says he wrote. "So if you help me get out of this place, not only will I serve you, but I will tell the world about you. Sincerely yours, Darryl Burton."

But Jesus doesn't have a mailing address. Burton kept the letter under his mattress. "I had to tear that letter up eventually and throw it away," he says, laughing. "If the guards had found it, they'd say, 'The guy's finally gone nuts. He's lost his mind. He's writing to Jesus. Put him in the nut ward.'"

He started reading the New Testament. "I read what Jesus said on the cross: 'Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.' I thought, 'If he could do that on the cross, I'll try to do it while I'm still alive, here on Earth.'"

As the Bible instructed, Burton started praying for the enemies who had condemned him to death by incarceration. "I can tell you, at first I prayed through gritted teeth, for real. I prayed like, 'I'm not liking it, but I'm doing it, Jesus.' That's how it started out. It wasn't easy, but it became real after a while."

Praying for "those people" became a four-times-a-day routine. Only after he opened up to Jesus, he says, did his plight finally begin to receive attention.

In 2000, he got a letter from Centurion Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey. James McCloskey founded the organization in 1980 to re-examine the convictions of innocent, indigent prisoners serving life sentences or facing death. Burton had first written to Centurion in 1990. A reply explained that the operation was so small, it would take at least ten years to take his case. He wrote again every year, sometimes twice.

The 2000 letter told Burton that Centurion was taking his case, with the help of a Kansas City lawyer named Cheryl Pilate, whom Burton also had written. The team had already been instrumental in overturning the wrongful conviction of Ellen Reasonover, who also had been convicted, on flimsy evidence, of committing murder at a St. Louis gas station. In 1990, when Burton first wrote them, Centurion's lawyers had eight exonerations to their credit. By 2000, the number had risen to 22. Burton would become number 47.

McCloskey says of Burton's situation, "It's classic. You have police and prosecutorial miscarriage of justice on one side and dismissive, uncaring defense lawyering on the other side. They [people like Burton] have no chance, absolutely no chance."

The lawyers dug in and presented a thick brief on Burton's innocence, under federal writ of habeas corpus, to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 16, 2002. Habeas corpus is a last-ditch effort to free a prisoner, in which the argument must be made that a prisoner's constitutional rights were violated during trial.

But the appeals court found no constitutional violations of Burton's rights and denied his petition on July 27, 2003. A critical passage in Circuit Judge Kermit Bye's decision was revealing.

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