Convicted of shooting 24-month-old Charles Gregory on September 19, 1985 in Chicago, Illinois, Lavale Burt was exonerated more than a year later when new evidence implicated Gregory’s mother in the shooting.
On the morning of September 19, 1985, Carolyn Collins called 911 reporting that her baby had been shot in the face. When officials arrived, Collins stated that she had heard shots while inside her house, ran outside, and found her son dead on the porch. When she became a suspect, however, Collins changed her story, claiming that she saw 19-year-old LaVale Burt shoot a gun at two girls, Gloria and Linda Leatherberry, on the sidewalk outside of the house. She claimed that Burt was trying to shoot the Leatherberrys, who were standing down the street, but missed and hit her son. Burt insisted that he was innocent when he was arrested later that afternoon. Forensics investigation found gunpowder on the hands of Carolyn Collins the same day. When asked where it came from, Collins claimed that she had no idea. Both Gloria and Linda initially denied being shot at, but later changed their stories to agree with Collins’s statement that Burt had accidentally shot her son.
According to Burt, he was “slapped around” by the investigating police officers, and was coerced into falsely confessing to shooting Charles Gregory. The officers reportedly told Burt that he was going to be convicted of first degree murder and would be given the death penalty if he did not confess. Burt was also told that if he confessed to the murder, he could claim it as an accident, and would receive less punishment. Feeling he had no options, Burt agreed to sign a confession stating that he accidentally shot Charles Gregory. The confession, which the police created, detailed Burt’s motive for shooting at the two girls. Linda and Gloria's brother, Robert Leatherberry, had been shot earlier the same day. The confession stated that Burt was involved and later tried to shoot Robert's sisters in order to keep them from linking him to Robert’s shooting.
Later that night, Burt was taken back to the scene of the crime, and was asked where he put the gun. He pointed in a general direction of where a gun might have been, but officials were never able to find any weapon. Two days after signing his confession, Burt retracted it, claiming that he was forced to falsely confess to the murder of Charles Gregory, and insisted that he was innocent.
Despite the absence of a murder weapon and no explanation for the gunpowder on Carolyn Collins’s hands, Burt was convicted of murder on October 17, 1986, following a bench trial in the Cook County Criminal Court. The following day, Judge Ronald Himel, the judge presiding over Burt’s case, received a phone call from Josephine Collins, Carolyn Collins’s mother. Josephine stated that she had found a .22-caliber handgun in a ceiling closet of her daughter's house. She brought the gun to the courtroom, and ballistics matched the gun with the bullet that killed Charles Gregory. Carolyn Collins then acknowledged that she had accidentally shot her son.
On December 10, 1986, Judge Himel vacated the conviction, and entered a judgment for acquittal. Burt was released the same day, after 447 days of wrongful incarceration.
- Dan Osher
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.