Innocence Project Exoneree Huwe Burton Speaks to Stuyvesant
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Innocence Project exoneree Huwe Burton virtually visited the Stuyvesant community on May 7 to tell his truth. His story, characterized by betrayal, loss, and regret, opened up a conversation regarding the anti-Blackness and corruption still prevalent within the US criminal justice system. This event was coordinated by biology teacher Dr. Jeffrey Horenstein, who reached out through the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that works to exonerate wrongful convictions like Burton’s through DNA testing and criminal justice reform advocacy.
In addition to biology, Dr. Horenstein teaches Forensic Science, a science elective that covers crime investigation and legal processes with a focus on principles and applications of biology, chemistry, and physics in a laboratory setting.
Dr. Horenstein reached out in hopes of arranging a speaker session with an exoneree after finding the organization’s work with DNA testing and analysis relevant to his class’s laboratory exercises, such as DNA fingerprinting or blood analysis. He hoped that Burton’s story would be an insightful opportunity for Stuyvesant students to learn about the justice system. “When [the Innocence Project] suggested Huwe Burton, I was initially hesitant because he was not exonerated with DNA evidence. We are, after all, a Forensic Science class,” he said in an e-mail interview. “But I felt differently when I learned that his case was the first example of someone to be cleared based solely on a scientific analysis of the methods used to produce false confessions. What better way is there to understand the consequences of a failing criminal justice system than to hear from someone like Mr. Burton?”
At the age of 16, Burton was wrongfully convicted for the murder of his mother, Keziah Burton, in January 1989. A neighbor’s false accusations led authorities to pursue him as the case’s prime suspect; the three prosecuting detectives used coercive interrogation to force a false confession from Burton. Burton’s teacher informed authorities that he was in school at the time of the crime and the case’s alternate suspect held an extensive criminal history. However, it was too late when the detective realized. After a confession, Burton was tried as an adult and sentenced to 15 years in prison before he was released on parole in 2009. A decade later, his case was exonerated by the Innocence Project.
Re-investigation into Burton’s case revealed that the prosecutors who elicited Burton’s false confession had a history of employing psychologically coercive techniques. Burton discussed the abusive techniques used in his own questioning, such as isolating Burton from his father, threatening him with additional criminal charges, and pressuring Burton to confess with promises of leniency. “[The detectives] knew [I] knew nothing about law [...] In my naive 16-year-old mind, I’m thinking, ‘I know I didn’t commit this crime, but [confessing] seemed to be the only way I was going to get out of this room.’ I felt as if I couldn’t leave,” Burton said during the event.
Burton openly shared details regarding the misconduct that occurred in the case and spoke on how Emmanuel Green, the neighbor who accused him of the crime, is now believed to be the perpetrator of said crime. Detectives on the case interviewed Green and found him in possession of Keziah Burton’s car, but disregarded the evidence until they had apprehended Burton, even allegedly corroborating with Green to falsify statements regarding how Green came into possession of the car. “When [the detectives] realized it was [Green] with the car, they were like, ‘Wait a minute. [...] This really makes us look like fools, if we interviewed the actual murderer and said that he had no involvement, [instead] locking up a 16-year-old child who had no criminal history and didn’t do this,” Burton said.
Liew Lieberman, a former Assistant District Attorney in Brooklyn who was present during the event, found the tactics employed by the detectives shocking but highlighted that detectives’ behavior was appropriate at the time. “It may sound bad, but detectives were allowed to do that. They’re allowed to say things that aren’t true in order to gain a confession, but I believe that law has been changed,” he said.
Many attendees felt that this lack of accountability by law enforcement reflects poorly on the United States justice system, revealing disparities in how our systems enforce justice. “It's so horrific that the adults would condemn an innocent boy just to avoid the consequences of their own mistakes. It’s sad that even today the police aren’t always enforcing justice over their personal opinions,” freshman Emma Kwan said in an e-mail interview.
Others expressed anger toward the lack of legitimate justice throughout Burton’s case. “I was angered by the fact that they accused a young boy [of] murdering his mother even though they knew that was not the case. I was angered that the guys [the detectives] were still working, instead of being punished. I was angered by basically everything about that case,” senior Althea Barrett said.
Lieberman further elaborates on the misgivings this can reflect on our entire justice system. “To the younger people: be aware of it. Just one wrongful innocent conviction is a stain on society. It’s a whole breakdown that contributes to a loss of respect for institutions,” he said.
Drawing on his 25 years of practicing law, Lieberman also warns students to not antagonize prosecutors solely based on this case. “There is a misconception around many people that prosecutors are the bad guys. I think that’s very false and wrong,” Lieberman said.
Attendees also expressed hopes for the prosecution to be accountable. “We can [...] maybe e-mail the head of the Bronx [New York Police Department] and bring the case to his attention,” junior Ellen Pehlivanian said in an e-mail interview. “Hopefully the detectives and any other people involved in Mr. Burton's wrongful conviction pay for their actions and Mr. Burton gets the closure he deserves.”
While many expressed frustration for injustices within Burton’s case, others also commented on their admiration for Burton’s advocacy. “The most common responses from my students were their admiration for Mr. Burton for his courage and his lack of bitterness,” Dr. Horenstein said in an e-mail interview.
Burton stresses that while these injustices were tumultuous to his life and that he hopes for the prosecution to take accountability, it’s also important to note that his case is not uncommon. “This happened to me when I was 16. There are 16, 17, 18-year-olds being brought into the prison system. [...] Assuming some of you [the attendees] are going into law [...] about ten years from now [...] means that some of the potential clients or people you’ll do cases on, right now, as we speak, are five to six years old [...] As you get older, [...] some of [these five, six-year-olds] are going to be defendants, rightfully or wrongfully so.”
Burton encourages attendees to vote and become more politically active to combat the perpetuation of such injustices. “I really believe in policing having a framework of people knowing you can’t come into communities and do what you want when you want it, and how you want it without having to explain,” he said. “What you can do is continue to keep pressure on your politicians [...] The district attorney is an elected position, but a lot of the time, we don’t know anything about district attorneys until they say, ‘This is the new district attorney.’”
Attendees took this sentiment to heart. “Huwe [Burton] brought up an interesting point about how change starts young. It is really important for the young to know their rights [...] and continue asking questions [...] If people had pressed the detectives [of Huwe Burton’s case], the truth might have surfaced years ago,” junior Fatima Bagom said in an e-mail interview.
Some students have expressed interest in becoming involved with the Innocence Project. “They have a program where students can apply to be e-mail buddies with people behind bars. The way Huwe Burton finally got out was by getting his story out there. The difference between his story and others is that there was someone to listen. As students we can not only gain compassion, but also lend them an ear,” an anonymous junior said in an e-mail interview.
As injustices continue to appear in our justice system, Burton’s story stresses the importance of continuing to support organizations like the Innocence Project and question the legality within our judicial system. “You really have to drive home the point that your elected officials have to be in line with change and reform, and you guys have to continue to ask questions. What happened to me happened in ’89 because no one had any questions,” Burton said.