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Exonerated men speak out about wrongful convictions

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 1:36 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 4, 2010
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Darryl Burton, Dennis Fritz and Josh Kezer all served years in prison for crimes they did not commit. They shared their stories at a Midwest Innocence Project presentation in MU’s Neff Hall Auditorium on Wednesday evening.

COLUMBIA — Twenty-four years is almost a quarter of a century. It's also the amount of time 47-year-old Darryl Burton spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Burton was sentenced to 75 years in prison after "snitch witnesses" — people facing jail time who testify against defendants in order to receive leniency or immunity — testified that he had murdered another man, Burton said. Wednesday night, he and two other exonerated men shared their stories.

Burton, Dennis Fritz and Josh Kezer spoke of their wrongful convictions at an event sponsored by the Midwestern Innocence Project. The talk began at Campus Bar and Grill and ended with the three men speaking at Neff Auditorium.

Burton said entering jail was "dehumanizing" and began to describe the process in detail, to which Kezer became visibly upset. Burton also relived stories of other inmates getting raped, killed or committing suicide.

"If it's one person in prison (who is innocent), there's one too many," Burton said. "I was shown that there is a place called hell, and I've experienced it."

Fritz, a former high school science teacher and track coach as well as the subject of John Grisham's "The Innocent Man," also spoke passionately about the harms of prison.

"It tears at your soul and at your heart and your family," said Fritz, who served 12 years in prison. "I've been on a roller coaster ride through hell."

Fritz and Kezer were also convicted based on the testimony of "snitch witnesses."

The Midwestern Innocence Project, which has two full-time lawyers and many volunteers, works to free wrongfully convicted inmates in Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Arkansas. While the event was a fundraiser, project board member Steve Weinberg was unsure of how many donations they would receive.

"If we make $1,000, I'll be happy," Weinberg said.

The project suggested donations from $100 to $1,000, based on the donor's relationship to the organization. About 50 to 100 people attended the event.

"I think the Innocence Project itself makes us aware that the criminal justice system is flawed," Missouri School of Journalism professor John Fennell said. "They're not only doing the people behind bars a service but also the whole system a service."

Some in attendance, like Reggie Williams, came because they were connected to people in prison. Williams' adopted son is currently incarcerated, and Williams said he was glad the Innocence Project held such events.

"Most people don't get involved because of the perception about people in prison," Williams said.

Kezer too addressed the innocent men still behind bars.

"This is not about me," Kezer said. "This isn't about (the volunteers)."

Then he asked a couple, whose son is currently in prison, to stand.

"This is about their son."


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Comments

Jan Davis February 4, 2010 | 12:50 a.m.

My name is Janice (Jan) Davis and I live in NC. For months I have been following and reading the story about the tragic and wrongful conviction of Ryan Ferguson. I have written letters to everyone I can think of, and I am going to write them all again. These are to Governers, Senators, Congress, and even the president. I just want Kevin Crane, the detective that interviewed the troubled kid Chuck Erickson and even Judge Asel, all to know that americans are angry and they are going to speak out. You are going to regret putting a young man in prison with his entire life ahead of him based on a DREAM of a troubled young man. I don't know how any of you sleep, I really don't. Were you just too lazy to do your job and go look and at least try to find the real killers. No matter, you won't get by with this one. America will be HEARD!

(Report Comment)
Melinda Wolverson February 4, 2010 | 8:31 a.m.

I remember talking to him right after he got out. I'm glad to see he's doing well and making a difference with his experiences.

(Report Comment)
Joshua Kezer February 4, 2010 | 10:59 a.m.

Grace and peace.

My prayer is that your readers hear the message behind this article and begin to see us exonerated men as opportunities to rise up and be compassionate. I'm a man that has learned the hard way that compassion is thin and that it's each person's responsibility to give it.

We need the public to fight for us. We need the public to fight for those who will, by God's grace, follow us. We need the public to fight for law makers to change laws...for our government officials to see the deliberate indifference and negligence the present policies impose upon men and women in our position. We need your prayers and your love.

Despite what happened to me, I choose to love, I choose to be productive, I choose to reach out and embrace other unfortunate people. Jesus Christ has empowered me to choose the right path and I follow willingly, despite our governments unwillingness to follow with me.

I ask of you. Choose to follow with me, to follow Him...to follow love and to be compassionate.

____________________________________________

If you would at all be willing to hear me out, have me speak to your group or church or business about these issues or the subject of overcoming impossible odds, you can contact me at joshkezer@gmail.com and I'll work something out with you to make that happen.

(Report Comment)
Joshua Kezer February 4, 2010 | 11:09 a.m.

@ Janice (Jan) Davis,

The bottom portion of the article...

Then he asked a couple, whose son is currently in prison, to stand.

"This is about their son."

The couple I asked to stand were Ryan's parents. Ryan is a personal friend of mine and very much a little brother to me in my heart. I did time with him for a few years before I was released last February. I believe he is innocent.

We are fighting for him. I don't know if you know, but his parents are doing well. His sister is as well. His family has remained strong through this experience, though there has been many set backs. They've recently gotten a high profile attorney out of Chicago to take the case, a lawyer that has experience in getting exonerations.

I expect that Bill and Leslie, Ryan's father and mother, would like to hear from you and thank you for your efforts in support of their son. Send me your contact information at joshkezer@gmail.com and I will see that they get it. If you do this, you will hear from them soon. They like to extend gratitude. They really are an amazing family.

(Report Comment)
Linda Cantu August 8, 2011 | 1:36 a.m.

To Jan Davis: I have read some of your comments about the Ryan Ferguson case, and I commend you on your articulate expression of the hideous injustice that has taken place. It's unimaginable that someone would put their career and ego ahead of the truth and the precious life of a young man and his tortured family. You're right, we are incredibly angry over this. The truth is obvious to the simplest mind. Those involved in keeping an innocent young man behind bars when they have the power to help have no business in their position or in being called "honorable."
The whole fiasco is a sickening travesty, and someone with the power needs to finally step up, do the right thing in freeing Ryan, and be the HERO. Who has enough integrity, compassion, and intelligence to be the one?

(Report Comment)

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