Page 3 of 7
Burton's trial had only confirmed his skepticism. "They [the witnesses] raised their right hand, and I don't know if they put their hand on a Bible or not, but they said they swear 'to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothin' but the truth, so help me God,' and was lying," Burton says. "And I'm saying, well, why didn't God strike 'em dead right there?"
So many other letters had gone unanswered. What harm was there in writing one more?
"If you're real, then you know, like I know, that I'm innocent," Burton says he wrote. "So if you help me get out of this place, not only will I serve you but I will tell the world about you. Sincerely yours, Darryl Burton."
But Jesus doesn't have a mailing address. Burton kept the letter under his mattress. "I had to tear that letter up eventually and throw it away," he says, laughing. "If the guards had found it, they'd say, 'The guy's finally gone nuts. He's lost his mind. He's writing to Jesus. Put him in the nut ward.'"
He started reading the New Testament. "I read what Jesus said on the cross: 'Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.' I thought, If he could do that on the cross, I'll try to do it while I'm still alive, here on Earth."
As the Bible instructed, Burton started praying for the enemies who had condemned him to death by incarceration. "I can tell you, at first I prayed through gritted teeth, for real. I prayed like, 'I'm not liking it but I'm doing it, Jesus.' That's how it started out. It wasn't easy, but it became real after a while."
Praying for "those people" became a four-times-a-day routine. Only after he opened up to Jesus, he says, did his plight finally begin to receive attention.
In 2000, he got a letter from Centurion Ministries in Princeton, New Jersey. James McCloskey founded the organization in 1980 to re-examine the convictions of innocent, indigent prisoners serving life sentences or facing death. Burton had first written to Centurion in 1990. A reply explained that the operation was so small, it would take at least 10 years to take his case. He wrote again every year, sometimes twice.
The 2000 letter told Burton that Centurion was taking his case, with the help of a Kansas City lawyer named Cheryl Pilate, whom Burton also had written. The team had already been instrumental in overturning the wrongful conviction of Ellen Reasonover, who also had been convicted, on flimsy evidence, of committing murder at a St. Louis gas station. In 1990, when Burton first wrote them, Centurion's lawyers had eight exonerations to their credit. By 2000, the number had risen to 22. Burton would become number 47.
McCloskey says of Burton's situation, "It's classic. You have police and prosecutorial miscarriage of justice on one side and dismissive, uncaring defense lawyering on the other side. They [people like Burton] have no chance, absolutely no chance."
The lawyers dug in and presented a thick brief on Burton's innocence, under federal writ of habeas corpus, to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on May 16, 2002. Habeas corpus is a last-ditch effort to free a prisoner, in which the argument must be made that a prisoner's constitutional rights were violated during trial.
But the appeals court found no constitutional violations of Burton's rights and denied his petition on July 27, 2003. A critical passage in Circuit Judge Kermit Bye's decision was revealing.
"One cannot read the record in this case without developing a nagging suspicion that the wrong man may have been convicted," Bye wrote. "Unfortunately, Burton's claims and evidence run headlong into the thicket of impediments erected by courts and by Congress. Burton's legal claims permit him no relief, even as the facts suggest he may well be innocent. Mindful of our obligation to apply the law, but with no small degree of reluctance, we deny Burton a writ."