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A trial deemed unconstitutional frees man after 23 years

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | 10:10 a.m. CDT; updated 4:19 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 2, 2008

KANSAS CITY — A St. Louis man convicted in a 1984 gas-station killing has been freed from prison on orders of a Cole County judge who ruled the man's capital murder trial was unconstitutionally flawed.

Darryl Burton, 46, was scheduled to appear Tuesday at a news conference in Kansas City along with the lawyers and supporters who fought for eight years to have his conviction and life sentence thrown out.

Burton was released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Friday, the same day prosecutors in St. Louis decided against trying him a second time.

Attorney Cheryl Pilate of Kansas City said Monday night that she and co-counsel Charlie Rogers picked Burton up at the prison, along with a Columbia pastor who had befriended him.

"He had his first meal in Columbia with us," Pilate said. The group then went to St. Louis so that Burton could visit with family members, including "nieces and nephews he had never seen before." He also has family in Kansas City and will live there, she said.

No physical evidence or suggested motive had ever tied Burton to the June 1984 shooting death of Donald Ball at an Amoco station in St. Louis. Instead, he was convicted solely on the testimony of two men who claimed to have witnessed the shooting.

But one of those witnesses, Claudex Simmons, lied during Burton's 1985 trial in St. Louis Circuit Court when he testified that his own criminal history consisted of just two convictions.

Simmons had actually been convicted of at least seven felonies and five misdemeanors — information that should have been disclosed to the jury, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan wrote in an Aug. 18 ruling accompanying a writ of habeas corpus.

"The concealment of Mr. Simmons' extensive criminal history caused enormous prejudice to Mr. Burton, as Simmons was the main witness against him," Callahan wrote. "A complete disclosure of Mr. Simmons' history would have shown that he was not just an occasional thief but was an experienced criminal."

Longstanding precedent lets criminal defendants try to impeach the credibility of prosecution witnesses — a right denied to Burton by the nondisclosure of Simmons' full record, the judge concluded.

Callahan also cited testimony from three women who were at the gas station and said Ball's killer was a light- or medium-complexioned black man. They said they considered Burton to be dark-skinned.

Callahan's ruling also noted that Simmons and the other prosecution witness repeatedly changed key details of their accounts of seeing Burton open fire on Ball and flee the scene.

Burton had maintained his innocence from the start and filed numerous appeals in state and federal courts, only to lose at every turn. But the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while refusing on other grounds to grant Burton a new trial, said in 2002 it found the case troubling.

Noting evidence that had emerged since the trial, the 8th Circuit said there was reason to suspect "that the wrong man may have been convicted of capital murder and armed criminal action."

 


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