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."