Freed after 24 years of false imprisonment, Darryl Burton forgives you 

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They continued west on I-70. Burton's mother, Pearline, was throwing a party for a family friend, so her house was already full of relatives. When Burton borrowed one of his lawyers' cell phones and called home, his brother Barry picked up.

"Oh, man," Barry said, "Darryl's out." In the background, Burton could hear voices saying, "Stop that, boy. Quit playin'!" A cousin snatched the phone from Barry to hear the news firsthand. "After that, all I heard was screaming," Burton says.

The reunion on his mom's front porch was a private moment — no press and no photographers, just family and friends, hugs and tears.

His old neighborhood had improved over the years. New houses had sprouted on top of the abandoned lots that he remembered. Still, Burton wanted to put down new roots. He was home for two days before he headed west to Kansas City.

"I forgave St. Louis," Burton says. "I just can't trust it."

Burton's grandfather died a month after he was freed. Soon after, one of his six brothers (he also has two sisters) survived a mild heart attack. Then Burton was evicted from his cousin's house, where he had been staying — the landlord complained that he wasn't on the lease.

Staffers at the Midwestern Innocence Project learned of Burton's eviction and found a rental house for him north of the city, off Missouri Highway 9. A St. Louis lawyer bought Burton a used 2003 Chevrolet Tracker from a Gladstone dealership.

The Missouri Department of Corrections issued him a debit card to access funds that he had earned in his prison job; he may as well have been handed a Rubik's Cube. Unable to find the power switch on a new TV, Burton says he clapped his hands in front of the blank screen and commanded, "Turn on, please." MP3 technology was another surprise for someone whose pre-incarceration jam was a Gap Band cassette.

Last October, Barry moved from St. Louis to Kansas City to be with his brother. Burton had spoken highly of the job-placement organizations in KC, but Barry soon discovered that those programs were no different from those in St. Louis. Barry finally found a job at an Italian restaurant, making a fraction of his old income with a trucking company. They both live in Burton's rented house and share the Tracker.

The state won't pay Burton for his 24 lost years. A bill that passed in Missouri in 2006 allows wrongfully incarcerated prisoners to collect compensation from the state, but only if they were exonerated through DNA evidence.

"It's unfair because the worst legal abuses happen in cases like Darryl's, where there is no DNA evidence," Pilate says.

According to state Rep. Trent Skaggs, the bill was written to exclude people without DNA exonerations because some legislators believe that only DNA evidence can prove a prisoner's innocence.

Skaggs lives a block and a half from Burton. The two met when Burton told his story in front of the congregation of the First Baptist Church–North Kansas City, which Skaggs attends. Burton's lecture circuit started in churches; the first Sunday that he spent in Kansas City, Pilate took him to address her fellow congregants at Saint Andrew Christian Church in Olathe. He received a standing ovation.

During the last legislative session, Skaggs took Burton to Jefferson City to speak in front of the members of the House Judiciary Committee. He says, "From my standpoint, the guy does 24 years in prison because of the position the state took. It's the least I can do to try to open some doors for him." Skaggs says he and fellow Democratic representatives Beth Low and John Burnett have been drafting legislation to expand the rules on compensation for the wrongfully convicted. But Skaggs doubts the ability of any bill, drafted by the minority, to go far under the Capitol's current leadership.


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