On the night of August 31, 1986, 65-year-old William Delton Frost and his 60-year-old invalid wife, Maude, were fatally shot in their two-room home in Downsville, Louisiana.
The front door had been smashed in and police believed the motive was robbery because Front didn’t trust banks and was believed to keep his cash in a suitcase in the home. The shots appeared to have been fired through a window. Their bodies were discovered two days later.
Six weeks after the murders, on October 12, 1986, Janet Burrell told police that she had met with her ex-husband, Albert, 31, the night of the crime and that he had $2,700 in $100 bills and blood on his boots. She said he admitted firing the shots and that she saw Frost’s wallet on the front seat of his car.
Burrell was arrested within the hour.
Not long after, Kenneth St. Clair told police that he had come to Louisiana with Michael Graham
, 23, to find construction work. St. Clair told police that on the night of the crime, Graham and Burrell left the trailer where Graham was living on near St. Clair about 8:30 p.m. and returned later. Graham had blood on him, St. Clair said.
At the time, Graham was in the Union Parish jail on forgery charges for allegedly stealing the checkbook of a woman who had hired him and St. Clair to do some work and then cashing about $300 worth checks.
On October 24, 1986, Graham and Burrell each were indicted on two counts of murder.
Two days later, Graham’s cellmate, Olan Wayne Brantly, told authorities that Graham had admitted he and Burrell committed the crime and that Burrell had fired the fatal shots.
Graham went on trial on March 20, 1987 in the Union Parish Courthouse. The state’s key witnesses were Janet Burrell and Brantly.
Although police reports said that Frost’s wallet was recovered in his home, a deputy testified that he believed Burrell had returned to the Frost’s home and put the wallet back because he suspected his wife had seen it the night they met.
Another witness, 14-year-old Amy Opiel, who had spent the night of the crime with the St. Clair family, testified that she saw Graham and Burrell sitting on the couch in the trailer with a suitcase and stacks of money.
Graham was convicted on March 22, 1987 and sentenced to death.
Burrell went on trial in August 1987 and was convicted and sentenced to death based on virtually the same evidence presented in Graham’s trial.
Five months after Burrell was convicted, Janet Burrell, who by then was remarried to Burrell’s brother, James, recanted her testimony. She said she lied because she wanted to get custody of their child, which had been awarded to Albert Burrell prior to the murders.
The Louisiana Supreme Court granted Albert Burrell a hearing, but at the hearing on July 6, 1988, Janet Burrell changed her testimony back to her original story. The motion for a new trial was denied and, eventually, his conviction and death sentence were upheld by the state supreme court.
Meanwhile, Graham’s case also had been sent back for a hearing on a motion for new trial, but his lawyers got extension after extension as they began to uncover new evidence.
By 1995, Janet Burrell had recanted her testimony a second time. Burrell was facing an execution date in August, 1996. Seventeen days away from death, Burrell’s lawyer obtained a stay.
In 1998, Amy Opiel recanted her testimony, claiming she was pressured to lie and that it was St. Clair she saw with blood on his clothes and counting money.
Graham finally had a hearing in 2000 where lawyers presented the recantations, as well as evidence that prosecutors had failed to turn over exculpatory and impeachment evidence—including that Brantly had cut a deal with prosecutors on a pending charge and that he was taking medication to control mood swings.
On March 4, 2000, Graham was granted a new trial after 3rd Judicial District Judge Cynthia Woodard ruled that prosecutors had misled the jury, and failed to turn over exculpatory evidence.
On December 28, 2000, charges were dismissed against Graham and he was released from prison. On January 2, 2001, charges against Burrell were dismissed and he was released.
In 2016, a state appeals court upheld a lower court ruling denying Graham and Burrell compensation from the state of Louisiana.
– Maurice Possley