NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Huwe Burton was 16 when he was accused of a hideous crime he would insist for decades that he didn’t commit: stabbing his mother to death, then staging a scene to make it appear an intruder had sexually assaulted and killed her.
After 30 years — 19 of them in prison — Burton was cleared of the charges Thursday after Bronx prosecutors said they would no longer stand behind his murder conviction.
“To hear that there’s been public acknowledgement of what was done to me — that’s when I get a bit emotional,” said Burton, 46, who was paroled in 2009. “It just felt like a weight was officially lifted.”
While he had his freedom, living with a wrongful conviction for killing his mother, Keziah Burton, “was just a lot to bear,” he said.
Prosecutors and Burton’s lawyers, from the Innocence Project, said a re-investigation raised questions about the methods police used to obtain it, and about a neighbor who implicated Burton in the crime but Bronx District Attorney now calls “a viable suspect” in the killing. The neighbor is long dead.
“I no longer have the confidence that Mr. Burton’s confession is reliable,” Clark said outside court. “I’m pleased that we were able to help restore his dignity.”
Burton was a high-school student when he called 911 on Jan. 3, 1989, to report that he had come home to find his mother’s bloodied body in her bedroom in the building the family owned. She was a nurse; his father, a building contractor, was visiting relatives in Jamaica at the time.
Police soon honed in on their son. He had no criminal record, but police would later tell reporters he didn’t seem as distraught as detectives thought he should be.
After being questioned, Burton confessed to killing his mother out of anger because he wouldn’t give him money to pay a crack dealer, police said. The admission resounded in newspaper headlines in an era of crack and violent crime.
Burton soon recanted his confession and said he had never used the drug. But he was convicted on evidence that centered on his confession and statements from a neighbor — who had been arrested days after Keziah Burton’s killing driving her stolen car — that the teen had confessed to him and they had both then staged the scene of an apparent break-in and sexual assault.
The neighbor had convictions in robbery and rape cases, and the re-investigation turned up troubling psychological records on him, according to Burton’s legal team, which also included a Rutgers University legal clinic and a Northwestern University professor.
Clark said “it became clear that there was a viable suspect that was involved” but never brought to justice. The neighbor was killed in a personal dispute before Burton’s trial.
Burton’s lawyers said detectives with a history of getting false confessions — the sleuths were involved in another confession-based case that ended in acquittal — pushed Burton into confessing by telling him they would help him if he did and threatening to charge him with other crimes, among other tactics.
Prosecutors agreed that detectives used problematic interview techniques now understood to generate false confessions, though Clark made a point of saying that the techniques were common at the time.
“It’s not necessarily that they did anything wrong … and so now we know better,” she said.
The New York Police Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the case. The detectives involved have retired, Clark said.
Burton has spent the last ten years trying to rebuild his life. He works for an elevator company, and is training to run the Marathon in November.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)