Miracle Man: Darryl Burton forgives St. Louis. He just doesn't trust it.

Sep 23, 2009 at 4:00 am

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.

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.)

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.

"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.

"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.

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.

Peter Dunn says, "This speaking circuit he's on, sometimes he makes money, sometimes he doesn't. That's not going to work. But in prison, he oversaw an inmate-run program designed to help guys get ahead and get their lives and attitudes back on track." That background, he adds, "will apply beautifully in a school setting."

Peter Dunn is a former chairman of the board of Don Bosco, a community center and charter school that serves a largely Spanish-speaking population. With Burton, he says, he "penciled out" an idea for a program, at a cost of $225 per student, in which Burton would work with groups of twelve kids at a time, teaching them skills such as time management, positive thinking, setting goals. His program also would stress the importance of forgiveness. He says that when they presented the idea to Don Bosco's leadership, the response was, "How soon can you start?"

"If I could mass-produce him and share his story at every high school in the country, I would," Peter Dunn says. "His ability to forgive is incredible."

Meanwhile, Burton's transition is ongoing. He has a grown daughter who lives in Indiana. She was seven months old when he went to prison. He wants to be a father to her now, but it's not easy to take on that role after 24 years. Through the girl's mother, he found out that she was going through hard times financially. He asked why his daughter hadn't asked him for help. "She doesn't want to dump it on you," her mother told him.

"Dump it on me?" he says. "I just went through the worst thing a person can go through. I don't have much, but what I do have is hers. I owe it to her."

At the end of the anniversary celebration at the West Side church in St. Louis, ushers hauled baskets heaped with bills from the sanctuary, all contributions for Burton. Future anniversaries will no doubt be less rich. But for now, Burton is navigating the free world like a man with God on his side.

Nadia Pflaum is a staff writer at The Pitch, the RFT's sister paper in Kansas City. To comment, e-mail [email protected].