By Keith L. Alexander
When Troy Burner was a teenager in the late 1980s, he worked as a radiology aide at George Washington University Hospital. He also occasionally peddled crack cocaine on D.C.’s streets.
The sporadic drug dealing, Burner said, put him under suspicion among D.C. police and made him an enemy of competing drug dealers. He said it also positioned him for a wrongful arrest and conviction in the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Michael “Bate” Wilson when Burner was 17.
After nearly 25 years in prison, Burner gained his freedom in 2018. But he never stopped fighting to clear his name.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Rigsby weighed Burner’s petition for actual innocence and this spring reversed Burner’s conviction, saying it had been based on a “rickety” account from a purported witness who later said he’d made up the story. The judge stopped short of a full exoneration but concluded that it was “more likely than not” that Burner was innocent. Last month, prosecutors said they would not retry the case and dropped the charges.
Burner, 48, watched the virtual court hearing in August from his computer. When heard that the charges were dismissed, tears filled his eyes. The murder case was gone.
“It was a surreal moment. It’s been a long journey from the beginning. Even though I worked the way I worked to get to this point and I expected this to happen,” Burner said, then paused. “Just the finality of it all. I can’t really explain how I feel. I have so many emotions.”
Seth A. Rosenthal, Burner’s pro bono attorney, said his client’s case exemplified one frequent problem in wrongful convictions – reliance on a witness seeking favour for cooperation. In Burner’s case, the key eyewitness was a three-time felon who, at the time, was charged in a different murder case.
“It demonstrates the real problems with cases that rest exclusively with cooperator testimony and how flawed those cases are,” Rosenthal said. “In these innocence cases, you often see incentivized testimonies that turn out to be false.”
Though federal prosecutors dismissed charges against Burner, they do not consider him exonerated. “Mr. Burner has not shown that he was actually innocent,” said Shelia Miller, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office.
Wilson was killed on April 21, 1990, a year when the District had more than 470 homicides. The case went unsolved for nearly three years. Then in 1993, a man named Antoine Payton was arrested in a different murder. After being questioned by detectives, Payton told authorities he had information about Wilson’s killing.
Using court transcripts and detectives’ notes, Burner’s attorney revealed how Payton began telling a series of varying narratives that culminated with his testifying that he saw Burner with two friends when they shot Wilson.
Payton initially told authorities he did not see the shooting and only heard about it from friends, according to the documents. But as Payton continued to meet with detectives, his story changed. He told authorities that just after 9 p.m. that April night, he was sitting inside his parked car and he saw two men he recognized run after and shoot at Wilson and his friend in Northeast D.C.
Three men, all friends of Burner’s, were charged.
Prosecutors alleged that two of them, Nathaniel Harrod and Louis McCoy, were the gunmen. They said a third man, Francois Bracmort, was a drug dealer who wasn’t on the scene but ordered the killing after he heard on the street that Wilson intended to rob him.
Burner said detectives questioned him.
“It was a situation where I wasn’t guilty and detectives came to me and told me from off the top, ‘We know you didn’t have anything to do with this, but we need you to help us with the others,’ ” Burner said. “I didn’t know anything about the shooting, and they didn’t believe me.”
Later, when Payton testified before a grand jury, he said he saw three, not two, assailants. For the first time, he implicated Burner in the murder. Payton again said he was in his parked car, but this time he placed himself closer to the location of the shooting. He told the jurors that Burner was among the group he saw kill Wilson and that he remembered seeing Burner become frozen in place when the shooting began. Burner was arrested a day later.
As the trial got underway, Payton again changed his account, this time telling jurors he was standing outside his car when the shooting began. He said he saw Burner standing behind Wilson, who began to back away when others began firing.
Payton was the only witness who testified to seeing three men. Two other witnesses testified that they saw two attackers. The man who was with Wilson and was injured testified he did not remember how many people chased them.
The trial lasted one week. Today, murder trials with multiple defendants often take several weeks. Prosecutors argued that three of the men, on orders from the fourth, chased Wilson and his friend and that two of the assailants fired, striking Wilson six times in the back. They alleged that Burner had a gun that night but did not fire it. They argued that he instead positioned himself to block Wilson from running away.
Judge John H. Suda, who conducted the trial, denied a request by Burner’s attorney that he be tried separately from his co-defendants. Burner thinks the jury viewed the evidence collectively against all four, as opposed to each individually.
The jury found Burner and his co-defendants guilty of first-degree murder and related charges.
“The only thing at the time in my mind was I didn’t do anything. I don’t know anything,” he said. “This was unfamiliar territory for me. I was being naive now, looking back, I know. But, unfortunately, I was a believer in the truth would set you free.”
Decades later, over prosecutors’ objection, a judge in 2018 ordered Burner released from prison as part of the District’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA). The 2016 law allows for early release of inmates who were juveniles at the time of their crimes, spent at least 20 years behind bars and have shown evidence of reform while incarcerated.
Of the 52 former inmates released since the law was enacted, Burner is the only one who maintained his innocence, according to the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.
Back in the community, Burner kept focusing on his case and petitioned the court to declare him innocent.
Two of his co-defendants, Harrod and McCoy, submitted statements from prison. Both men said Burner was not with them when they killed Wilson.
Two childhood friends told the court they were with Burner playing dice when the killing occurred.
Perhaps most important, Payton, the government’s supposed eyewitness against Burner, submitted a sworn statement in which he admitted that his testimony had been fabricated and that he was not at the scene of the shooting.
Payton admitted that his account was pieced together from details he heard in the neighborhood and what the federal prosecutor shared with him during his questioning.
Payton also admitted to implicating Burner because Burner had refused to give him a false alibi after an earlier arrest.
“I thought it would make for better testimony and help me more in my own murder case. I knew that the prosecutor was going to go directly to the judge after trial and tell him that I had cooperated, so I told the prosecutor what I thought he wanted to hear. I also testified falsely against Troy because, at the time, I thought Troy could help me out in my case, but had refused to do so,” Payton said, according to court documents.
Payton, who initially was charged with first-degree murder, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He also was recently was released from prison.
Holding anger toward Payton would be pointless, Burner says. “I realized long ago, I couldn’t waste any of my time being angry, being vindictive or giving any of that too much thought. I understand those emotions, if you allow them, will take control.”
These days, Burner focuses on helping inmates. Last year, he graduated from Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative, a program for formerly incarcerated students. He also works with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project on cases of prisoners who maintain they were wrongly convicted. And he works with the organization Changing Perceptions in helping other IRAA grantees adjust to life outside prison.
Burner’s name has been added to the National Registry of Exonerations database, which includes more than 2,670 exoneration cases since 1989. The database is compiled by the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California at Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and the Michigan State University College of Law.
“My objective is to devote my time to the people that supported me and who were waiting for me. My mother, my brother, family and friends,” Burner said. “I have had a vast support system. A lot of them were very integral to my ability to persevere through these circumstances.”