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After the 8th Circuit's denial, Burton's attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review Burton's case. The high court turned down the request on April 28, 2003.
"That day, the case was dead," McCloskey explains. But the next day, April 29, 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court freed death-row inmate Joe Amrine after DNA evidence exonerated him. Implicit in the Amrine decision, Pilate says, was the indication that the Missouri Supreme Court would review claims of pure innocence based on new evidence, reopening the door for Burton. "The case was dead one afternoon and alive the next morning," McCloskey says.
"We knew this was his last chance," Pilate says.
Eddie Walker, the police informant who testified against Burton, had died of cancer years earlier. Centurion's investigators tracked down Walker's old roommate, who said he had been with Walker the night that Ball was killed. The roommate said both he and Walker heard the shots, but they were on the other side of a fence in an alley behind the gas station and did not see the crime.
Walker's credibility as a witness was further dissolved when investigators interviewed two of his ex-wives. In an affidavit, one of the women described Walker as the "type of person who could lie against anyone, no matter how serious the situation, if it would serve his own alcoholic purposes."
Jesse Watson, the man who shot Ball the first time, was himself slain on June 26, 1986. Two fellow prisoners who had done time with Watson after Ball's death told investigators that they heard Watson admit to killing Ball. Another friend of Watson's signed an affidavit describing Watson's longstanding feud with Ball. The friend said Jesse "told me personally that he killed Donald Ball."
Burton's attorneys presented their findings in a series of hearings in front of Judge Richard Callahan of Cole County Circuit Court in 2007 and 2008. On August 18, 2008, Callahan issued an order directing that Burton be released within 15 days. The state had the option to recharge Burton; the St. Louis District Attorney's Office declined.
On August 29, 2008, Burton left prison with one box full of his law books and another containing his portable TV, radio and state-issued clothing. Pilate and other members of his legal team picked him up.
Burton says he blacked out for a moment as he passed through the prison's last set of doors. He came to on the other side, as if waking from a dream. "I guess ... the joy of being about to be free was just overwhelming to me," he says.
Burton's legal team picked him up from prison in a compact car. The towering semis on Interstate 70, the speed, the noise — Burton was terrified. "If you're jogging, that's the fastest you can go in prison," Burton says. "We're going 70 miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic. I was like, 'You're about to give me a heart attack.'"
The freedom riders paused briefly for a bite to eat at a McDonald's. Burton was so accustomed to prison life that he inquired whether the restaurant's bathroom was "in bounds or out of bounds." Pilate says, "I remember telling him, 'Darryl, you can be anywhere you want to be. There isn't anyplace that is out of bounds.'"