St. Louis man free after 1985 murder trial ruled flawed

Tuesday, September 2, 2008 | 5:18 p.m. CDT

KANSAS CITY - A St. Louis man released from prison after a judge ruled that his 1984 murder trial was constitutionally flawed said he hopes his case will convince the public that the United States is jailing innocent people.

Darryl Burton, 46, was convicted in 1985 of capital murder and armed criminal action and sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years. He was released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Friday, when prosecutors in St. Louis decided against trying him a second time for a gas station killing.

During a news conference Tuesday, Burton said he believes there are thousands of other innocent people in U.S. prisons.

"I come to prison thinking that is an isolated incident, I'm the only person this has ever happened to," Burton said. "I thought, justice just don't goof up like this, not in American justice, or what I term American injustice. But it does happen, in more cases than we know."

Burton was convicted despite the lack of physical evidence or any motive tying him to the June 1984 shooting death of Donald Ball at an Amoco station in St. Louis. He was convicted solely on the testimony of two men who said they saw the shooting.

But one of those witnesses, Claudex Simmons, lied during Burton's 1985 trial in St. Louis Circuit Court when he testified that he had been convicted of a crime only twice. In reality, his criminal record included at least seven felonies and five misdemeanors.

The failure to disclose Simmons' complete criminal history to the jury violated Burton's right to due process, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan said in his Aug. 18 ruling accompanying a writ of habeas corpus.

The judge gave the state 15 days to decide whether to retry Burton. The St. Louis Circuit attorney decided on Friday not to retry Burton and he was released.

That came as a pleasant shock to Burton, attorneys and investigators who had been working on his case for eight years. Burton said the warden told him personally that he was to be released and offered to have him driven to St. Louis.

"I told him I'd walk to St. Louis if what you're saying is for real," Burton said. "It was just surreal. You wait on these days, you wait and wonder and see other cases on the news. For me, I just said, ‘My day will come.'"

Attorney Cheryl Pilate, of suburban Kansas City, co-counsel Charlie Rogers and a Columbia pastor who had befriended Burton picked him up at the prison. They took him to St. Louis, where he was reunited with his mother and other family members.

Pilate said all those involved were thrilled with the outcome but joined Burton in hoping the case would highlight the difficulty of exonerating innocent inmates.

She said that's particularly hard in cases like Burton's that do not include any DNA evidence. Many wrongful convictions are won on "snitch" evidence from criminals seeking deals and weak eyewitness evidence, she said.

"His story is dramatic yet all too common," she said. "There are hundreds if not thousands of people just like him still sitting in prison."

Burton maintained his innocence from the beginning and relentlessly tried to get help, writing an estimated 600 to 700 letters and filing numerous appeals on his own. In 2000, Pilate and Rogers began working on the case with the help of Centurion Ministries, a national organization that provided investigators and money to help exonerate Burton.

Burton said his case began to turn in his favor after he became a committed Christian in 1998. He said he is not bitter but emphasized that prosecutors should not be allowed to offer "snitches" deals for testimony.

"The system we have in arguably the best country on earth is locking up its citizens because someone wants to get a conviction," Burton said. "It becomes a game. And you're dealing with people's lives. ... We can do better than what we have done with our system of justice. We have to."


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