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The Midwestern Innocence Project: Darryl Burton
The Midwestern Innocence Project: Darryl Burton was set free after 24 years behind bars as an innocent man. "This is a glorious time to be alive," said Darryl Burton. "I got to vote for the first time - and it was for a black man as president of the United States!" Burton faces the new year 2009 with the feeling of a fresh start for a profound, personal reason, in addition to the inauguration of the new president of Jan. 20. After being robbed of 24 years of his life by the judicial system, he recently was exonerated of the crimes for which he was wrongly convicted. "I'm not bitter, I'm better," Burton said. Burton was released from Jefferson City Correctional Center on August 29, 2008 - the same day Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for U.S. president. "Everything is new to me, everything," Burton said. "I am overwhelmed by a different variety of emotions." Since his release, Burton has taken his story to many different audiences across the country. They see a passionate, energetic man who wants to make sure that society knows there are hundreds of innocent men and women imprisoned in Missouri. "There are still people behind bars who are innocent." Burton said. "I'm not the only one." Those who meet this remarkable man wonder out loud about his lack of bitterness toward the criminal justice system, but Burton doesn't have time to wallow on bitterness or self-pity. He has a lot of catching up to do and, at 47 years of age, he's still got a lot of living to do. His family and friends have given him coming-home parties in his hometown of St. Louis and his new town of Kansas City. He is meeting new nieces and nephews and making new friends. Still, he can never get back the time he lost. His father, Walter Burton, died of lung cancer early in Burton's judicial journey in 1985 while he was in jail awaiting trial, and his grandmother, Georgia Loggins (who visited him in prison until her health failed), died in 1990 at 74 years old. "Twenty-five years out of his life was 25 years out of mine too," said his mother Pearline Burton. She always believed her son was innocent, though she was realistic about the ruthlessness of the criminal justice system. She said it was his tenacity and upbeat personality that strengthened her faith in his promise that one day he would be free. 'Death by incarceration' On June 4, 1984, as the crack cocaine drug wars raged in St. Louis, Donald "Moe" Ball was gunned down while pumping gas at the Amoco station located at the corner of Goodfellow and Delmar boulvards. Ball was a well-known drug dealer embroiled in a turf war with another drug dealer, Jesse Watson. A year earlier Watson had put a bullet in Ball. The shooting was not fatal but permanently injured Ball's right arm. There were witnesses and acquaintances of both parties who said that Watson was the gunman that summer night. However, St. Louis police never pursued Watson as a person of interest. Out of the blue, Burton (age 22) was fingered by two individuals claiming to be witnesses. There was no physical evidence linking him to the murder; a slug was found at the murder scene, but no weapon was ever recovered. No motive was ever presented at trial. The prosecutor did not present any substantial evidence linking Burton to this crime. The only evidence the state had was two snitch witnesses who made deals with the prosecutor in exchange for their testimony, because they faced unrelated felony charges. The case went to trial March 1985. One witness Claudex Simmons, giving testimony in a plea bargain exchange for a lighter sentence, admitted to two convictions when he actually had at least seven felonies and five misdemeanors on his record. These facts came out only after Simmons crashed into the car of Affton Fire Chief Gerald Buehne in 2005 while fleeing from police, killing Buehne. Simmons was then convicted of felony murder and armed criminal action; he is now serving a life sentence. "It's surreal to wait all these years and then finally have a chance to be vindicated, to be exonerated," Burton said. "I have a whole new lease on life. It's like feeling born again."