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Huwe Burton

Other Bronx CIU Exonerations
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When the police in the Bronx, N.Y., arrived at the apartment of Keziah Burton on January 3, 1989, the 59-year-old woman was already dead. She had been stabbed in the neck and was face down in a nightgown on her bed. Her underwear had been removed, initially suggesting a sexual assault. There was a telephone cord wrapped around one wrist, and the contents of her purse were strewn on the living-room floor.

The 911 call had been made by Burton’s 16-year-old son, Huwe Burton, who told police that he had come home from school just before three. While he noticed that the TV was on and his mother’s belongings were on the floor, he said he thought she had just run to the store. He said that before he had a chance to look more carefully around the apartment, the phone rang, and a friend invited him over to her apartment. It was only after he arrived home at about 5:40 that he looked in his parents’ bedroom and found his mother’s body.

The police never established a time of death, but they believed that Keziah Burton knew her killer. There was no sign of forced entry and no forensic evidence of a sexual assault. Investigators quickly focused on Huwe. They were initially suspicious because he said he knew the exact time, 2:47 p.m., that he had come home from school. That, the investigators thought, seemed like he was trying to establish an alibi. Second, he said that he had been at school all day, but his first-period teacher told police he was not in her class that morning.

The police brought Burton in for questioning on January 5. They interrogated him for three hours. Twice, he asked to speak to his father, who was out of the country. Those requests were denied. They told him he was lying about when he was at school. The friend Burton had visited the afternoon of his mother’s death was a 13-year-old girl, and she and Burton had had sex. The officers told him that was statutory rape, and he could go to jail for that.

While the interrogation itself wasn’t recorded, Burton would produce a written and videotaped confession in which he said he was high on crack cocaine and had killed his mother during a fight. He was arrested and charged with murder.

Six days after Burton’s confession, police in Westchester County, N.Y. stopped a man named Emanuel Green. He was driving Mrs. Burton’s Honda, which had been reported stolen on the day of her death. Green lived downstairs from the Burtons. He had been interviewed early in the investigation, but at that time, police didn’t know he had an extensive criminal record that included convictions for rape and robbery. He was interrogated by the police, and he signed a statement that said Burton had come to him for help after he had killed his mother. Green said it was his idea to make the killing look like the work of an intruder. Although charged with larceny, possession of stolen property, and hindering prosecution, Green was not charged as an accomplice in Mrs. Burton’s murder. He died before Burton’s trial.

Burton recanted his confession and said it was coerced by the police. In pre-trial motions and hearings, he tried unsuccessfully to have it suppressed. When Burton’s trial began in 1991, his attorney, William Kunstler, wanted to offer an expert witness to testify about false confessions, and why a 16-year-old boy who was all alone, raised to be respectful of authority, and grieving over the death of his mother would be particularly susceptible to police interrogative tactics. At the time, there was only limited research on the phenomenon of false confessions, and the trial judge didn’t allow that testimony.

A jury convicted Burton on September 25, 1991 of second-degree murder and fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

The Innocence Project referred Burton's case to Steve Drizin, an attorney and expert on false confessions at Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions in 2009. By then, considerable research had been done about the causes and consequences of false confessions. The research had firmly established that they exist, and that the situation that Burton found himself in as a young, scared teenager could produce a false confession.

Drizin brought in Laura Cohen, an attorney at Rutgers Law School’s Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic to work on the case and in 2013, the Innocence Project in New York joined Burton's legal team. In 2016, after Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark formed a conviction integrity unit, the team asked the unit to examine Burton's case. The parties then spent two years studying Burton’s confession, the means by which it was obtained, and the apparent contradictions between his confession and what the evidence suggests happened in the apartment.

First, the investigation showed the detectives who interrogated Burton had produced false confessions before in a homicide case three months earlier. While those two suspects were acquitted at trial, the coercive techniques were similar to those used on Burton.

The initial examination of Mrs. Burton’s body at the time of her son’s confession suggested that there was a single fatal wound, so violent that it had gone through one side of her neck and out the other. And in his confession, Burton said he stabbed his mother once with a serrated knife and then she fell to the bed. But a later, more extensive examination showed she had been stabbed twice, with a smooth-bladed knife. She had also been beaten, which is not mentioned in Burton’s confession. Burton said that after he stabbed his mother, he dropped the knife on the floor. But the knife recovered at the scene was behind the bed, and testing revealed no traces of blood.

In his confession, Burton said that he bound only one of his mother’s wrists, which is how she was found. But binding a single wrist – although it conforms with the crime scene -- would not restrain a person.

Finally, Burton’s confession was filled with police jargon as opposed to descriptions a boy would use . He said he was “stimulated” on cocaine, “associating with a friend,” and “proceeding” up a road.

The police had focused on Burton because his teacher had said he wasn’t at his first-period class, and during the interrogation, they had used that apparent lie to break him down and induce the confession. But shortly after the confession, the teacher told the police she had checked her records. Burton was in class that morning.

Separately, the CIU investigation found significant inconsistencies in Green’s statements to police. Green told police that he had bound both of Mrs. Burton’s wrists with the telephone cord. Burton’s confession only mentioned a single wrist, which is how the body was found.

In one statement, Green told police that he removed the knife from Mrs. Burton’s neck. In another, he said Burton removed the knife. Green said he told Burton to get rid of the murder weapon and then Green put a steak knife near the body. “A more likely scenario,” the CIU noted when filing for charges to be dismissed against Burton, “is that Green got rid of the knife because it was his knife and it linked him to the crime as the actual assailant.”

The problem, the CIU investigation noted, was that Burton had already confessed by the time police arrested and interrogated Green. Rather than seeing the new evidence for what it was – a neighbor with a history of violence driving a car stolen from a murder victim, the police used Green to confirm their theory of the crime with Burton as the killer and Green as an accessory.

Burton was paroled in 2009. At his parole hearings, he said he had stabbed his mother. The CIU did not view this as an admission of guilt, but rather as a necessary step toward being paroled, and said it had no bearing on whether his initial confession was true.

On January 16, 2019, the Bronx District Attorney’s Office submitted a recommendation for dismissal of charges against Burton. On January 24, the three innocence organizations filed a motion to vacate the charges and join the DA’s recommendation. The charges against Burton were dismissed by Judge Steven L. Barrett of Supreme Court for Bronx County that day. Barrett was the judge in the earlier homicide case where the detectives who interrogated Burton had coerced false confessions out of two innocent young men.

Burton now works for an elevator repair company, and he spoke in the courtroom after the ruling. “It’s been a long, long journey and I’m thankful we’ve reached this point,” he said. “I stand here for that 16-year-old boy who didn’t have anyone to protect him, and the adults didn’t protect him at that time.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 2/4/2019
State:New York
County:Bronx
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:1989
Convicted:1991
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:15 to Life
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:16
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No