By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Sean Kelley
The Missouri Department of Corrections issued him a debit card to access funds that he had earned in his prison job; he may as well have been handed a Rubik's Cube. Unable to find the power switch on a new TV, Burton says, he clapped his hands in front of the blank screen and commanded, "Turn on, please." MP3 technology was another surprise for someone whose pre-incarceration jam was a Gap Band cassette.
Last October, Barry moved from St. Louis to Kansas City to be with his brother. Burton had spoken highly of the job-placement organizations in KC, but Barry soon discovered that those programs were no different from those in St. Louis. Barry finally found a job at an Italian restaurant, making a fraction of his old income with a trucking company. They both live in Burton's rented house and share the Tracker.
The state won't pay Burton for his 24 lost years. A bill that passed in Missouri in 2006 allows wrongfully incarcerated prisoners to collect compensation from the state, but only if they were exonerated through DNA evidence.
"It's unfair because the worst legal abuses happen in cases like Darryl's, where there is no DNA evidence," Pilate says.
According to state Rep. Trent Skaggs, the bill was written to exclude people without DNA exonerations because some legislators believe that only DNA evidence can prove a prisoner's innocence.
Skaggs lives a block and a half from Burton. The two met when Burton told his story in front of the congregation of the First Baptist Church-North Kansas City, which Skaggs attends. Burton's lecture circuit started in churches; the first Sunday he spent in Kansas City, Pilate took him to address her fellow congregants at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe. He received a standing ovation.
During the last legislative session, Skaggs took Burton to Jefferson City to speak in front of the members of the House Judiciary Committee. Skaggs says, "From my standpoint, the guy does 24 years in prison because of the position the state took. It's the least I can do to try to open some doors for him." Skaggs says he and fellow Democratic representatives Beth Low and John Burnett have been drafting legislation to expand the rules on compensation for the wrongfully convicted. But he doubts the ability of any bill, drafted by the minority, to go far under the Capitol's current leadership.
Burton isn't spending much time seeking restitution, though his goals do require money. He wants a law degree, and he aims to start programs that counsel inner-city kids and that help former prisoners as they re-enter society.
Burton's speaking fees this year went toward living expenses, which he keeps relatively low. His frequent trips to St. Louis are made on the Megabus, an $8 fare.
Burton is ineligible for the kinds of assistance offered to ex-offenders because he isn't one. But his testimony has attracted a different kind of support from a largely white, middle-class cross-section of Kansas Citians.
His message has broad appeal. For conservative churchgoers, his story is an affirmation of faith. For the socially conscious, liberal-minded listeners, Burton reinforces the impression that our justice system serves the rich and screws the poor. After his speaking engagements, Burton is swarmed by people from both camps. They congratulate his strength and offer handshakes as they express how, even though they couldn't possibly understand what he went through, they get it. They get him.
Some are compelled to offer more than a clasp of hands. On August 9, Burton shared his story at the nondenominational All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, near Kansas City's Country Club Plaza, where an amorphous work of textile art above the pulpit stands in for religious iconography, and the choir sings songs about oneness and togetherness. At the beginning of services there, those new to All Souls are invited to stand and introduce themselves. That Sunday, about a dozen newcomers announced that they were there to support Burton.
Art Collins, one of the service's leaders, encouraged the congregation to donate to Burton's cause. As baskets were passed, there was a flurry of zippers and snaps and pocketbooks opening. "Checks may be written to Darryl Burton," Collins added.
Not only churches facilitate Burton's networking. Lora McDonald works for the Kansas City Metropolitan Crime Commission and is the director of a new program called Second Chance, which coordinates resources to help former prisoners. McDonald met with Burton and convinced him to address Second Chance's board earlier this year.
At the board meeting, Burton met chairman emeritus Bill Dunn Sr., son of J.E. Dunn, the founder of J.E. Dunn Construction, one of the largest building contractors in the country. Last year, through his company's foundation, Dunn Sr. contributed the first of three annual payments of $100,000 to the project. It stings him a bit to know that a significant part of his company's revenue comes from the ever-expanding prison industry.
"In the last ten years, I think we built over 48 prisons around the country, which is really a sad situation as to what has happened to our society," Dunn Sr. says.
Dunn Sr.'s nephew, Peter Dunn, joined Second Chance's board at his uncle's behest. Peter Dunn isn't in the family business; he's the vice president of Skylight Financial, a debit- and credit-card provider with headquarters in Atlanta. After hearing Burton's testimony, Peter Dunn invited Burton out for lunch. They scheduled another meeting, then another. Now, Burton plays basketball with Peter Dunn's regular pickup group. They speak almost daily.