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Burton pleaded not guilty. His public defender, Dorothy Hirzy, met with Burton just once before the two-day trial. In a sidebar wih prosecuting attorney Anthony Gonzalez just before closing arguments, Hirzy agreed not to mention Watson, the man who had shot Ball a year earlier.
The prison snitch, Claudex Simmons, was a 24-year-old career criminal who routinely coughed up information on crimes in exchange for favorable treatment from the courts. He had been near the Amoco the night of Ball's slaying and, when interviewed, originally told the police that he had seen nothing. His ability to identify the Amoco shooter suddenly improved when he was later arrested and charged with second-degree robbery. In Burton's trial, Simmons testified that his "deal" with prosecutors would allow him to serve one year in prison instead of three years; in fact, he faced a much harsher 15 years as a persistent offender, something that Burton's attorney, Hirzy, failed to point out. After testifying against Burton, Simmons was released on probation with time served.
The jury took less than an hour to convict Burton of capital murder in a case that lacked physical evidence and motive. Circuit Judge Jack L. Koehr sentenced him to life in prison. Before he was taken from the courtroom, Burton says he told the judge that someday he would prove the court had condemned the wrong man.
Burton accessorizes his muted wardrobe with a crucifix on a chain, a gold cross pin and a black Kangol hat tipped backward — "like Samuel L. Jackson," he says. His frame is fit; he has lived as a nondrinking, nonsmoking vegetarian since his teens. He radiates calm and humility, deflecting most compliments. Credit goes to God first, then to his "angels," the people he says aided him when he was locked up.
He says he spent his first dozen years in prison simmering with rage, another ticking time bomb in a population of short fuses. He hated the snitches, the judge, the jury, the prosecutors and his public defender. Still, he says, his anger rarely manifested outwardly. His only write-ups were for minor infractions, he says, such as wearing clothes not clearly marked with his prisoner ID — 153063 — or squeezing in a few extra minutes on the phone after a guard told him that his time was up.
Rather than scuffling in the yard, he spent his days in the prison's law library, bent on proving his innocence. The Latin terms he stumbled over seemed like further proof of a widespread conspiracy to keep black men of little means locked up forever. An envelope he received in the mail gave him hope; it contained an affidavit dated August 7, 1985, in which the snitch, Simmons, admitted — apparently of his own volition — that his testimony against Burton had been perjury.
With traditional state court remedies exhausted, Burton turned to writing letters. He estimates that he wrote 600 of them — to presidents, senators, U.S. representatives, nonprofit organizations, even Oprah Winfrey. (Oprah producers contacted him a few months ago, he says, but his story didn't fit their criteria.)
In 1998, Burton wrote his most important letter: to Jesus.
Though his mother and grandmother were strong believers, Burton had shrugged off religion. He remembers his grandmother's words: "Son, there will come a time in your life when no one can help you but Jesus. I hope you remember to call on him."