"One cannot read the record in this case without developing a nagging suspicion that the wrong man may have been convicted," Bye wrote. "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. Mindful of our obligation to apply the law, but with no small degree of reluctance, we deny Burton a writ."

After the 8th Circuit's denial, Burton's attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Burton's case. The high court turned down the request on April 28, 2003.

"That day, the case was dead," McCloskey explains. But the next day, April 29, 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court freed death-row inmate Joe Amrine after DNA evidence exonerated him. Implicit in the Amrine decision, Pilate says, was the indication that the Missouri Supreme Court would review claims of pure innocence based on new evidence, reopening the door for Burton. "The case was dead one afternoon and alive the next morning," McCloskey says.

The intersection where Burton was accused of committing capital murder.
The intersection where Burton was accused of committing capital murder.

"We knew this was his last chance," Pilate says.

Eddie Walker, the police informant who testified against Burton, had died of cancer years earlier. Centurion's investigators tracked down Walker's old roommate, who said he had been with Walker the night that Ball was killed. The roommate said both he and Walker heard the shots, but they were on the other side of a fence in an alley behind the gas station and did not see the crime.

Walker's credibility as a witness was further dissolved when investigators interviewed two of his ex-wives. In an affidavit, one of the women described Walker as the "type of person who could lie against anyone, no matter how serious the situation, if it would serve his own alcoholic purposes."

Jesse Watson, the man who shot Ball the first time, was himself slain on June 26, 1986. Two fellow prisoners who had done time with Watson after Ball's death told investigators that they heard Watson admit to killing Ball. Another friend of Watson's signed an affidavit describing Watson's long-standing feud with Ball. The friend said Jesse "told me personally that he killed Donald Ball."

Burton's attorneys presented their findings in a series of hearings in front of Judge Richard Callahan of Cole County Circuit Court in 2007 and 2008. On August 18, 2008, Callahan issued an order directing that Burton be released within fifteen days. The state had the option to recharge Burton; the St. Louis district attorney's office declined.

On August 29, 2008, Burton left prison with one box full of his law books and another containing his portable TV, radio and state-issued clothing. Pilate and other members of his legal team picked him up.

Burton says he blacked out for a moment as he passed through the prison's last set of doors. He came to on the other side, as if waking from a dream. "I guess ... the joy of being about to be free was just overwhelming to me," he says.

Burton's legal team picked him up from prison in a compact car. The towering semis on Interstate 70, the speed, the noise — Burton was terrified. "If you're jogging, that's the fastest you can go in prison," Burton says. "We're going 70 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic. I was like, 'You're about to give me a heart attack.'"

The freedom riders paused briefly for a bite to eat at a McDonald's. Burton was so accustomed to prison life that he inquired whether the restaurant's bathroom was "in bounds or out of bounds." Pilate says, "I remember telling him, 'Darryl, you can be anywhere you want to be. There isn't anyplace that is out of bounds.' "

They continued west on I-70. Burton's mother, Pearline, was throwing a party for a family friend, so her house was already full of relatives. When Burton borrowed one of his lawyers' cell phones and called home, his brother Barry picked up.

"Oh, man," Barry said, "Darryl's out." In the background, Burton could hear voices saying, "Stop that, boy, quit playin'!" A cousin snatched the phone from Barry to hear the news firsthand. "After that, all I heard was screaming," Burton says.

The reunion on his mom's front porch was a private moment — no press and no photographers, just family and friends, hugs and tears.

His old neighborhood had improved over the years. New houses had sprouted on top of the abandoned lots that he remembered. Still, Burton wanted to put down new roots. He was home for two days before he headed west to Kansas City.

"I forgave St. Louis," Burton says. "I just can't trust it."

Burton's grandfather died a month after he was freed. Soon after, one of his six brothers (he also has two sisters) survived a mild heart attack. Then Burton was evicted from his cousin's house, where he had been staying — the landlord complained that he wasn't on the lease.

Staffers at the Midwestern Innocence Project learned of Burton's eviction and found a rental house for him north of the city, off Missouri Highway 9. A St. Louis lawyer bought Burton a used 2003 Chevrolet Tracker from a Kansas City-area dealership.

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