Innocent People Don’t Run
The Huwe Burton Story.
Innocent People Don’t Run
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 006, February 2019
By Liam Boylan-Pett
The man stands in the crowd and waits. Shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others, he shifts his weight from side to side and situates the drawstring on the basketball shorts he wears over sweatpants. After what seems like forever, the starting horn blares, and he lurches forward. Moving in small, staccato steps to avoid clipping the heels in front of him, he barely notices the claps, cheers, and whistles filling the air. He feels an extra bounce in his brand-new shoes on this crisp fall morning as he inches closer to the start line of the New York City Marathon. Traveling with the mass of fellow runners, it takes him 26 minutes and 41 seconds to get there.
For Huwe Burton, 26 minutes is nothing. He has been waiting years for this. Now, he has 26.2 miles to go.
And so much more than that.
On the evening of January 3, 1989, Huwe Burton, then 16, walked into his home on the third floor at 3515 Eastchester Road in the Bronx. He had attended Evander Childs High School that day and, after coming home briefly in the afternoon, gone over to a friend’s house. His mom’s car was not there that afternoon, so Huwe (pronounced Hugh) had guessed that she was off at the store. It was odd that the car still was not back that evening, though. Even more odd was the fact that he had not heard from his mother and that she didn’t seem to be home. Then, he nudged the bedroom door open.
His mother, Keziah Burton, a 59-year-old registered nurse, was facedown on her bed. She was naked from the waist down. There were two fatal stab wounds in her neck. Huwe’s mother was dead.
From there, things moved quickly and in a blur. Huwe found the phone and dialed 911. Through tears, he told the responder on the other end of the line that his mom was dead. Soon, red and blue lights flashed through the window of his home, and detectives and EMT workers shuffled in and out.
Raphael Burton, Keziah’s husband and Huwe’s father, was away visiting family in Jamaica at the time, so Huwe, who was questioned by detectives the evening of the murder, stayed with his godmother, Eloise Gilmore, the night of January 3. He did so again the following night, but not until after the police questioned him one more time. Sergeant Frank Viggiano, the commanding officer of the 47th Precinct Detective Squad, had doubts. “We were told by the son that he had just arrived home from the school and found his mother dead,” Viggiano told the New York Times. “But he was not as distraught as I might think a 16-year-old would be in finding his mother in that condition.”
Raphael was still stuck in Jamaica on January 5, when two detectives arrived at Eloise’s house. Huwe went with the detectives to the Laconia Avenue station house for his third round of questioning in as many days.
There, Huwe cracked.
He admitted to the detectives that he had had sex with a girl he visited the day of the murder. She was 13. The detectives harped on it, threatening that they might charge him with statutory rape. He should make things easy on himself, they told him, and cooperate. After hours of interrogation and moments before he was going to leave for home, Huwe allegedly broke down. The detectives said he confessed to the murder.
Allegedly, he wrote the following in his confession:
I Huwe Burton know an individual by the name of “Bugs” who I owed $200 to for some crack I received from him to sell. Instead of selling the crack, I [kept] it for own personal use. I got the crack from him on December 16. I never gave him the money and he was hasselling me for it by calling me on the phone and seeing me on the street. Since this period I have been using it off and on. The last time I used it was on January 2 around 8 or 9 p.m.
I got home around 10 p.m. and had a spat with my mother about something I was supposed to do for her and never did it. I was still high on crack and I went to bed. I got up at 7:20 the next morning and got ready for school. When I came out of my room my mother was still arguing about what I didn’t do the night before. I walked to the kitchen and got a steak knife. I walked by my father’s room and had the knife in my hand. She then asked what I was doing with it and said, “Are you going to kill me?” I said, “And if I was?” And that’s when she went to smack me. I moved and accidentally stabbed my mother in her neck.
The written confession continued with Huwe explaining he had offered his mother’s 1988 Honda Accord to Bugs instead of the $200 for crack. He left the keys of the car on the floor under the driver’s seat. When he returned home from school, the car was gone. Huwe, his confession stated, assumed Bugs had taken it.
The interrogation went past midnight, into the next day. At 3:05 a.m. on January 6, according to police, Huwe agreed to give a videotaped confession. He was charged with second-degree murder immediately following his alleged confession. He had yet to even see his father since his mother was killed, and now he was under arrest. The headline in Section A, Page 30 of the January 7, 1989 edition of the New York Times was to the point: “Son Kills Mother Over Crack Money, Police Say.” In the following days, headlines in papers throughout the country were even more sensational, referring to Huwe as a “Crack-Crazed Teen.”
Huwe was taken to Rikers Island, where he remained on the day of his mother’s funeral. Not only was he being charged with her death, but he could not be there to mourn her. Rather, a eulogy he wrote was read by a mourner. “Right now I’m being accused of your death,” the statement read. “You know as well as everyone in this room there is nothing in this world that could make me take your life.”
On January 11, with Huwe still in custody, police spotted Keziah’s car in Mount Vernon, a neighborhood minutes from the Burton home. The driver had run a stoplight—and that driver wasn’t “Bugs.” Rather, a man named Emanuel Green was in possession of the car. In December 1988, Green had moved into the downstairs apartment at 3515 Eastchester, just below the Burton family. He was a convicted felon, once serving a sentence for armed robbery, and once for rape. He had lived beneath the Burton family—in the multi-unit home they owned—for just over one month.
In his confession, Huwe never mentioned Green.
Each year, on the first Sunday of November, the Otisville Correctional Facility often held a marathon of their own. They would start around 10 a.m., just like the race down in the city, and let the inmates take their shot at 26.2 miles. Huwe often participated, never finishing the entire 26.2 miles, but getting up to about 13. He had seen the marathon on Channel 7, and he was amazed by those who could finish the distance in the prison yard. He doesn’t remember exactly when, but he made a decision that he was going to run the marathon one day. The real one.
On the first Sunday in November 2016, Huwe passes the starting line, and the pack around him thins out.
Finally, he has room to extend his gait. He became a runner because he wanted to get in shape for the prison football league, and it stuck. Running made him feel free. It gave him something to hold on to.
He picks up the pace as he climbs the Verrazzano Bridge on his way to Brooklyn. The bib number pinned to his red shirt rustles in gusts of wind. It is positioned in the middle of Huwe’s T-shirt, just below the words “Innocence Project.”
“This wasn’t all for nothing,” Huwe told me the first time we met in August 2015. “It just has to have been for something.”
On the night of January 11, 1989, 22-year-old Emanuel Green, driving Keziah Burton’s 1988 gray Honda Accord through the streets of Mount Vernon, New York, ran a stoplight. Almost immediately, police lights flashed behind him as the blare of sirens filled the street. It didn’t take long for the patrolmen to realize the car was stolen, and the next thing Green knew, he was being charged with criminal possession of stolen property. Because of his priors, Green was jail-bound. Sergeant Viggiano’s interest was piqued—this was the car of a woman who had been murdered only eight days prior. By 3:22 a.m. the next morning, Green had waived his rights and was in front of a camera, taping a statement regarding the Keziah Burton murder.
According to Green’s statement, January 3, 1989, had gone much differently than the way Huwe had described it in his alleged confession. The way Green told it, Huwe knocked on Green’s door that morning and asked him if he knew how to sell a stolen car. Specifically, his mother’s car. “I’ll take care of my mother,” Huwe allegedly told Green. Green then said that he heard Huwe and Keziah arguing before he heard a thud. After a few minutes of silence, Green claimed Huwe came out of the apartment and said, “I killed my mother. I stabbed her. I stabbed her.”
Then, Green said his “criminal mind” took over, and he decided he should help Huwe make it look like it was a robbery gone awry. As he told police, Green went upstairs with Huwe and dumped the contents of Keziah’s pocketbook onto the floor. He took $120 and gave $120 to Huwe. Then, they went into the bedroom, where Green said Huwe removed the knife from Keziah’s neck and wiped the blood off of it.
Green said he advised Huwe to go to school and that he would take care of the car. He never said anything about Huwe seeming high.
One week later, Green was found with the car and was telling detectives his version of events, which, at the very least, implicated him as an accessory after the fact.
In its report of the January 11 incident, the Mount Vernon Police Department noted that they intended to turn Green over to the Bronx police in order to charge Green for his involvement in the homicide. But that never happened. Green was never charged.
On March 30, 1989, the initial criminal possession charge against Green was dropped. That August, he testified before a grand jury investigating Keziah Burton’s killing. That testimony contradicted his first statement, but it held up. Once again, Green was not charged in the killing.
Within one year, Green was dead, killed in an unrelated love-triangle shooting.
His testimony would live on, however, as vital piece of evidence that would eventually put Huwe Burton behind bars.
Huwe knows the marathon won’t be easy. He is prepared for it to get difficult. He rolled through the first 10 miles of the race feeling good, but the longer he moves, the more he starts to notice things. His shoes are rubbing his feet too tightly around the toes. He is hungrier than he thought he would be at this point, craving more than just the water he keeps seeing at stops.
He knows he did not train as much as he needed to. He simply did not have the time. Huwe works as a mechanic for an elevator installation company, going into elevator shafts at sites around the city to make sure everything is in place and safe. He’s one of the people who carries his hard hat with him on his subway commute. The hours are long, especially when you’re jumping at the chance to work overtime for that time-and-a-half pay, which Huwe does whenever he can. That doesn’t leave much time to run. But Huwe did when he could, fitting in morning runs of three or four miles along Riverside Drive in Washington Heights. He worked his long run up to about three hours, but it never got up to 20 miles. He knows he is not exactly ready to set the course on fire.
Running through Brooklyn, however, he charges ahead.
The trial took place in 1991, over two years after Keziah’s murder. Huwe had been released on bail and spent time with his father during those years. Even in the lead-up to the trial, there were questions of whether the “crack-crazed teen” had killed his mother. The Village Voice ran a feature with the headline: DID HUWE BURTON KILL HIS MOM?
The piece, written by Peter Noel, highlighted the many discrepancies in Emanuel Green and Huwe’s statements, and stated point blank: “Although Emanuel Green, a convicted felon, gave several conflicting statements about his role in the slaying, police and the D.A., perhaps anxious to cross one more murder off the crime blotter, apparently snatched the nearest warm body: Huwe Burton.”
William Kunstler and Ronald Kuby were Huwe’s lawyers. The two were some of the best civil rights defense attorneys in the game—Raphael Burton did everything he could to defend Huwe. Huwe’s team focused on the coerced confession, which, at the time, was not a usual means of defense. While the science and knowledge about unreliable confessions has grown recently, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, no one could wrap their head around someone confessing to a crime they did not commit. Huwe admitted he had done it—what else was there to discuss?
Kunstler and Kuby urged jurors to look further into the confession, and they harped on Emanuel Green’s role in the crime. How, they asked, could both confessions be true when so little could be corroborated between them? Indeed, Kunstler attempted to call an expert to testify on the unreliability of Huwe’s confession, but the court denied the request.
The jury believed Huwe was guilty. Charged as an adult, Huwe was convicted of second-degree murder and weapons possession. He was sentenced to fifteen-years-to-life in prison. He was 18.
Running north on First Avenue, about 18 miles into the race, Huwe is exhausted. His mouth is dry no matter how much water he drinks, his stomach aches, and his quads and calves seize with every step he takes. He stops to walk, hoping his body will cooperate for these final miles.
Huwe is past the point of the longest run of his life now, both in distance and in time.
He can’t believe the crowd is still so enthusiastic. Spectators line First Avenue, at times three or four people deep, and constantly cheer for the runners charging by them. Thousands have already gone by, thousands more will. Huwe contemplates quitting. He has had the thought already, and he will again several times over the next eight miles, but he knows he’s not going to stop. He’s going to finish—no matter how long it takes.
Then he spots a familiar face. She is stopping to stretch, and she sees him, too.
It’s a woman he first met eight years ago.
“Let’s keep moving,” she says.
Huwe joins Laura Cohen, and they start running again, beginning their march toward the finish line.
In the late 1980s, Laura Cohen was a law student at Columbia University. At the time, Cohen says, it felt like the thing to do was go straight from Columbia Law to a high-paying job on Wall Street. Cohen wasn’t interested in following most of her classmates, though.
One day, Cohen and a few of her friends who were also interested in public service went to a lecture by Arthur Kinoy, the civil rights lawyer who was speaking about his legal autobiography, Rights on Trial. He was a professor at the Rutgers University Law School across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey.
Kinoy, tiny in stature, was charismatic. He spoke eloquently, pounding the podium while voicing his concerns about a serious constitutional crisis he claimed the country was in the midst of. It was unlike anything Cohen had heard at Columbia lectures. Cohen’s boyfriend—who would eventually become her husband—looked at her, impressed by Kinoy.
“We’re in the wrong school,” he said. “We should be across the river.”
She eventually would be.
Closing in on 20 miles, Huwe slowly crosses the Willis Avenue Bridge and enters the Bronx, the borough he called home until he was accused of killing his mother. The thoughts of quitting come back, but he quickly shuts them up—he certainly can’t stop now that Cohen is here with him.
He and Cohen take walking breaks intermittently. The pain in his legs won’t subside. The blisters in his new shoes keep getting worse. But Huwe is persistent. “I’m a hopeless optimist,” he told me nearly every time we met. He wasn’t going to start doubting now.
He had come through the half marathon in 2 hours, 10 minutes, and 28 seconds—right around 10-minute-per-mile pace—but the wheels were coming off. From 30 to 35 kilometers, he plods along at just over 13-minute pace.
But he keeps on going. He does not speed up as he enters Central Park, but he starts thinking about the finish line. It cannot come soon enough.
Huwe spent almost twenty years in prison. He missed birthdays, a chance at college, the entirety of his twenties.
He missed his father’s funeral, too. Raphael died in 2005. Huwe was released on parole in 2009.
Through it all, Huwe maintained his innocence. He wrote to anyone who would listen. Huwe had reached out to the Innocence Project multiple times while he was serving his sentence. DNA testing was not part of Burton’s case at that time, whereas the Innocence Project dealt primarily with cases of that nature. Therefore, they advised Huwe to contact Steve Drizin at the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University. (Drizin is an expert in false confessions, and was on the Netflix show “Making a Murderer.”) When Huwe reached out in 2008, Drizin contacted Laura Cohen at Rutgers in Newark.
Cohen had made it to the other side of the Hudson River by then, and was the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic, formerly the Urban Legal Clinic. In its original inception, the Urban Legal Clinic was for civil legal services only. In the mid 1990s, it extended those services to criminal defense. That’s the piece that Cohen took over. She and her students are in court in Newark several days a week, taking on cases the same way public defenders would.
In late 2008, Drizin and Cohen spoke with Huwe for the first time. After that conversation, Cohen—and her team of law students at Rutgers—took his case.
Cases like Huwe’s do not move quickly. One of the biggest problems with his case, Cohen told me, is that Huwe’s legal team did a great job when he was convicted. They asserted that Huwe’s confession had been coerced. Not only was it an unreliable confession, they argued, but the information in Emanuel Green’s statement did not match Huwe’s.
Looking back, it was stymying that the jurors found there was no reasonable doubt that Huwe had committed the crime. Yet, for the verdict to be overturned, Cohen and her team were going to need to find new evidence. For many who knew the case, it was shocking that the evidence they had wasn’t enough. Now they needed to discover more? They were up to the task.
Over the next several years, law students like Carlo Fioranelli, Gwyneth O’Neill, Farah Rahaman, Adrienne Hawkins, David Baumwoll, Samantha Mendenhall, Suzanne Hoyes, Laura Garcia, Caitlin Miller, Cat Costigan, and Ian Liberty—to name a few—put in hours rehashing the case and looking for bits of evidence or problems with Huwe’s case that could be examined even more closely. They traced down William Kunstler’s files, including some in a storage unit on Long Island, and chased leads on Emanuel Green’s ex-girlfriend. They pored over court documents and police reports. They even tracked down the man who had killed Green. They did everything they could to find something, anything, that could help clear Huwe’s name.
Huwe, meanwhile, was paroled in 2009 and found a place to live in Washington Heights and got a job working at an elevator installation company. He worked hard and as much as he could. When he had extra time, he ran and worked on other hobbies like his music—“I grew up in the Bronx,” he says, “I am hip-hop. But I love all music.” He played the piano for any band he could in prison, whether reggae, rock, or gospel. He continued once he was out, writing his own songs, performing, and playing with friends if the opportunity arose. On top of the job, the running, and the music, Huwe got a side gig helping out on video projects as part of video crews.
At one of those gigs in 2013, he met Schaunta Booth. They started talking and didn’t want to stop. Soon enough, the two were dating. She lived in New Jersey, so he would go out to see her on weekends whenever he could.
But he always kept the marathon in the back of his mind. He wanted to run it one day. Sure, there was some part of him that hoped it might lead to more press coverage of his case, but mostly, he wanted to run the race.
Nearly six years after his release, that desire to run the marathon had not dissipated. That’s when Huwe and I met, in 2015. The first time we spoke, we chatted about two things. He told me he wanted to run the marathon, and he told me that even after almost thirty years, his name was one day going to be cleared. He was sure of it.
Running through Central Park, Huwe focuses every bit of energy he has on finishing. He thinks about the friends he made in prison—the ones he first told he would finish the marathon one day. He knows that when he sets his mind to something and says he’s going to do it, that he has to follow through.
He is in pain. But he knows he has to keep moving. He and Cohen have to finish this.
So Huwe keeps running. He runs through the ups and downs of Central Park, and he makes his way out to 59th Street with less than one mile to go. He is almost there.
I first met Huwe across the street from the the Armory on 168th Street in New York in August 2015. I had heard his story from Cohen. She delivered the keynote address at my then-girlfriend’s (and now wife’s) law school commencement ceremony at Rutgers Law in Newark. And in her speech, she mentioned a runner who had been convicted of a crime he did not commit.
The story piqued my interest, so I reached out to Cohen and asked to hear it. She laid out Huwe’s case as if she were speaking in front of a jury, explaining how Huwe was coerced into a confession and how Emanuel Green’s testimony, a testimony that would not be permissible in a court today, had sealed Huwe’s fate. She told me Huwe had taken up running while in prison and that he had volunteered at a few New York Road Runners (NYRR) races with the hope of one day running the New York City Marathon.
Huwe and I spoke on the phone a few times throughout the summer, and he reiterated what Cohen had told me. He said he didn’t really know what he was doing when it came to running, but that he had run a race or two and wanted to take on 26.2 miles. “You know,” he said, “I read somewhere that many people who are wrongfully convicted of a crime spend an average of about 26 years in prison. I think it would be fitting if I ran the marathon.” (The average of wrongful conviction cases that have been reversed because of DNA evidence is about fourteen years, according to the Innocence Project.) I told him I was interested in writing about him and his running. He was into it.
That’s how we ended up outside the Columbia Medical Center, across from the Armory, coffees in hand. As doctors walked quickly by us, we got to know one another. Huwe talked about his case, but I already knew that, so we spoke about his dad and his mom, and how he was a “momma’s boy.” He told me he had started running because he wanted to get in shape for the prison football league, but then he discovered he loved the freedom of it. No one had control over him when he ran. He was able to escape. And the next thing he knew, he was running laps around the yard whenever he got a chance. He continued running after his release, too. He did not have to tell his parole officer he was going for a run; he could do it when he wanted. Running was his.
He asked about me, too. Huwe listens with his eyes when you speak to him. There is a calmness to them, an urge to know more. I told him about growing up in a small town called Bath in Michigan, and how running had gotten me into college and grad school, and helped land me a job. Then we talked about our jobs and about sports. He’s a Giants fan. He likes other sports, too, but football is his favorite.
We talked about music. “Music is the universal language,” he told me, explaining that this was especially true in hip-hop, because musicians sample from so many different genres. “I don’t know,” I said, “I think running is the universal language.” Nearly everyone can run, I told him, and nearly everyone gets hooked. He liked my thought process, but still said music was his universal language, and laughed.
Then we started talking about the marathon and if he would actually be able to run it. He wanted to raise money for charity if he was going to do it—a charity like the Rutgers Law School Clinic or the Innocence Project. He couldn’t run the race in 2015, he said. It was only three months away. But 2016? Why not?
We decided to keep in touch, and I told him I would start working toward getting him into the race.
Over the next year, Huwe and I texted often and met when we could. He would give me updates on the status of his case, which moved extremely slowly—too slowly, I thought—and we would chat about running.
In November, I got us tickets to the grandstand across from Tavern on the Green at the 2015 New York City Marathon. We watched from the bleachers as countless runners crossed the finish line. The finish line of the marathon is one of the happiest places in the world. There are smiles, tears, and joy. It’s impossible not to get swept up in the glee, even if you’re fifty yards away in the stands. “That’s gonna be you next year,” I told Huwe as we watched deliriously thrilled runners stream by. He nodded and smiled.
I pictured the 2016 New York City Marathon and how Huwe would cross the finish line. I thought how great it would be if his case was resolved by then—how fitting and storybook-esque to cross the finish line as a free man. I figured he was doing the same thing in his mind.
In February 2016, we met again at the Armory to watch the Millrose Games. Sitting up in the corner, he asked me what the hell the deal was with all these people running the first few laps of a race before dropping out, and I told him about pacemakers and “rabbits.” He loved watching Allyson Felix run the 60 meters, and it was impossible not to get wrapped up in the excitement of the crowd as Matthew Centrowitz outdueled Nick Willis in the final lap to win the Wanamaker Mile.
After that, we met at Coogan’s Restaurant on 168th Street and Broadway once in March and continued to text every once in a while. In May, I got word from one of my contacts at the NYRR that Huwe was getting a spot in the marathon. I texted him the good news. “I’m crying tears of joy,” he wrote back.
We texted over the summer and met at Coogan’s again about a month before the race, which would take place on Sunday, November 6. Each time we met, Huwe was the same—always steadfast, always calm.
I also chatted with Cohen around that time. It looked like the Innocence Project was going to join the legal team, which meant Huwe would have more in his corner than the Rutgers Law School Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic. Also, as it turned out, Cohen was running the marathon, too—and she was running it for charity, namely the Innocence Project.
Huwe already had enough on his plate; he didn’t need to raise money for charity, too. But he would support the group that was doing what it could to support him. On the morning of the marathon, he slipped a red “Innocence Project” T-shirt over a long sleeve.
Huwe had taken up running because it could set him free. But on the day of the marathon, running with thousands of others and specifically with a woman who had been working his case for eight years, he knew that running was more than just for him. It made him free, but it connected him with others.
Huwe Burton crosses the finish line of the marathon five hours after he started it—5 hours, 1 minute, and 8 seconds to be exact.
Sure, it is not the storybook ending many of us were hoping for—he is still fighting his case when he crosses the line—but Huwe is happy.
I find him and Cohen in the chaos of the finish. He is exhausted and so thrilled to be done. There are rings of salt on his face, evidence of sweat that dried there over five hours of running. I snap a picture of them both and tell Huwe how proud I am of him as other finishers stream by, crying and laughing and limping.
“Keep moving!” race officials yell at all the runners, herding them through the finish chute. Huwe and Cohen acquiesce and slowly start moving. We say our goodbyes, and they walk off to find their bags somewhere in the maze of Central Park.
Huwe and I speak on the phone later that night. He’s enjoying a drink and some time with his girlfriend. “Thank you for getting me in,” he says of the race. He can barely walk, and he’s not looking forward to what pains tomorrow will bring, but he cannot believe he finally ran the marathon.
Later, I look at the picture of Huwe and Cohen at the finish line. Huwe is staring at the camera with those eyes that are always listening, and he is smiling widely. It is a smile of accomplishment, one that says I can do this—I did do this. It’s a moment of joy, even as his fight for exoneration persists.
Huwe Burton has finished his marathon. He bided his time, put in the work, and he persisted.
But there is more work to be done, and much more than 26.2 miles to go.
It is late 2018 when everything starts coming to a head, and it actually seems like something might happen for Huwe. After thirty years of fighting, thirty years of authorities telling him he was wrong, thirty years of the system saying he had murdered his mother, thirty years of being hopelessly optimistic, Huwe finally has something to believe in.
For Huwe, life returns to normal after the run. In late 2016, his landlord asks him to leave his apartment, so Huwe moves up to Larchmont, New York, with his cousin. He notices the police keeping a close eye on him when he walks to the train station each morning. His commute balloons to two hours, but Huwe still shows up to work on weekdays and on weekends when there’s overtime available. He keeps making music, and he keeps seeing Schaunta as much as he can. Plus, he chips in whenever he can with his case.
The Innocence Project joined Drizin and Cohen’s teams in 2016, but there was more news. Darcel Clark was named the Bronx District Attorney that year, as well. She was the first woman in the position and the first African-American woman to be elected District Attorney in New York State.
Clark was presented with details of Huwe’s case in early 2017, and she tasked the Bronx District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to, with the help of Huwe’s legal team, reinvestigate the case. They focused on two aspects: the confession and Emanuel Green.
Since 1991, scientific and scholarly research has confirmed that psychologically coercive techniques used by detectives can and do produce false confessions. On the day of his confession, Huwe was 16. He was isolated from his father and his guardian, he was threatened with additional criminal charges, and he was offered leniency if he confessed to the crime. At the time, these tactics were common practice for detectives seeking a certain type of answer, especially when questioning juveniles.
Unsurprisingly, the detectives from the 47th Precinct had a habit of using these techniques. Frank Viggiano, Stanley Schiffman, and Sevelie Jones were the officers who questioned Huwe. Only three months before arresting Huwe, they had brought in two men they believed were involved in a robbery-murder inside a grocery store. They used interrogation techniques similar to the ones they would use on Huwe, and the two individuals confessed to helping a man named Amonte, who the detectives believed had committed the act, carry out the crime, acting as lookouts and getaway drivers.
Amonte, however, was in jail the day of the murder. Still, Cross and Parker were tried for murder. On the stand, both men testified that they were fed stories by the detectives, who told them they would not be responsible for the homicides and that they would be able to see their families once their confessions were complete. The two were acquitted in less than an hour after waiting two years to be tried.
Then there was the case of Emanuel Green, who had somehow escaped a charge in the case of Keziah Burton’s murder in 1989. The detectives did not dig up any information about Green’s criminal past, which included two convictions—a knife-point robbery and violent rape. The CIU and Huwe’s legal team discovered that Green had repeatedly lied to investigators in the rape case, much like he had in the Burton murder. The re-investigation also uncovered that a psychologist who evaluated Green determined he had a “schizoid personality disorder of adolescence, with depressive and aggressive trends, and underlying trends toward explosiveness.” The more that was discovered about Green, the harder it was to believe he was telling the truth in the Keziah Burton murder.
Because Green was dead at the time of Huwe’s trial, however, Huwe’s legal team could not question him. Green’s criminal past was not a part of the case. Instead, his statement was presented as is.
Over two years of investigating—in addition to the six-plus years prior to the joint effort—the Bronx DA’s Office and Huwe’s legal team pored over everything they could find in the case of Keziah Burton’s murder.
Just over thirty years after Huwe Burton’s mother was killed—at 8:50 P.M. on January 17, 2019—he sends me a text message.
“Hey Liam,” it says, “long time no hear. Can you talk for a few I have an update you may enjoy hearing.”
I’m leaving the gym when I see the text. Huwe is right. It has been a long time. We haven’t chatted much since we caught up at the end of 2017. I immediately feel guilty knowing how long it’s been since we last saw one another. I don’t have any excuses; the two of us simply haven’t spoken much lately. But here is Huwe reaching out. I respond saying how great it is to hear from him, and that I’m around any time to chat.
“Yes I have great news,” he writes. “Please tell me you can come to the BX thurs about 12.”
“I will be there,” I respond. I’m walking to the subway, and I can’t believe what he’s typing. It’s been long enough that I’m not completely up to date on his case, but my heart rate rises and my mind starts racing. Could he actually be free? “Just give me the location and I’ll make sure of it.”
“We’ve always wanted to do a piece about my fight,” he writes.
“I’ve been exonerated.”
I read the rest of the message through eyes welling up with tears. “This Thursday will be the official court date. They suspect a lot of media, so my guests are asked to arrive around 11. I would love for you to be there to share this moment with me!!! Laura of course will be there.”
I cannot believe it. “Huwe, I’m so fricken happy for you,” I write. “That is simply incredible. And we will do a piece about your fight. A long one. People need to hear about it.”
“You are a true inspiration,” I write in another message. “Thank you for inviting me, I will not miss it.”
“Thank you my friend,” he writes, and the word means the world to me.
I text my family and friends who I had told about Huwe to let them know the good news. I am giddy, so I cannot imagine how happy Huwe is.
The man spent thirty years fighting to prove his innocence. Labeled a “Crack-Crazed Teen,” he remained a great, optimistic man despite all that he went through. I never saw him waver. And finally, he was going to be free. Finally, his story was going to come out.
My phone buzzes again as I near home. It’s Huwe. “Gonna run this year again,” he writes. “Let’s do it.”
“Certainly it is a tragedy that Mr. Burton spent some 20 years in jail for a crime he did not commit,” Judge Steven L. Barrett says in a courtroom on the third floor of the Bronx County Hall of Justice on January 24, 2019. “For this, I apologize on behalf of a system that failed him.”
The hearing is a formality. Huwe, now 46, sits before the judge with his legal team. To his right are Susan Friedman and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project. Laura Cohen is directly to his left, and Steve Drizin is next to her. The courtroom is filled with people close to Huwe, including Schaunta. There are so many former Rutgers Law students and lawyers who worked on the case throughout the past nine years in attendance that many have to go into an overflow room where they watch the hearing on a video screen.
The lawyers sitting with Huwe each take turns speaking about the case, highlighting the mistakes that were made and explaining why Huwe never should have been convicted in the first place.
Justice Barrett announces that he is vacating the conviction and that it will be expunged from Huwe’s record. Then, he gives Huwe a chance to speak.
Huwe chokes back tears. “I want to thank the people who didn’t get to see this day,” he says. “They’re the reason I’m standing here. One of those people is my mother. She was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known. She gave me a strong set of values. I stand here today for her, because if I don’t, who will?
“I stand here today for my father who never made it through this journey. He had the responsibility of dealing with his wife’s death and dealing with his son’s defense at the same time. I didn’t know who could manage that. But somehow, he managed it. He managed to balance it for thirteen years. He died in 2005. I stand here for him.”
Huwe walks out of the courtroom a free man and speaks at a press conference in the hallway. His smile seems permanent as he explains to the press how happy he is and how he never gave up on his belief that he would be free.
Before January 24, 2019, if you had googled Huwe Burton, you would have discovered a crack addict who had killed his mother. Now, however, he will be the man who was wrongfully accused. He will be in the New York Post and the New York Times. By February, he will even be in a video feature on the Today Show. He will say more than once that he is not bitter, but he tells me that does not mean he is not angry. “I am angry,” he says. “I’m mad as hell.” He says law enforcement and others cut corners in the late 1980s. New York City was a dangerous place, and people wanted answers. No one cared how those answers were obtained, though, and we cannot simply ignore that now. “There has to be a degree of accountability,” Huwe says.
On the day of the exoneration, he spends time with his legal team and shares with the world what he has known for thirty years: that he is an innocent man.
One reporter asks him what he’s going to do next, now that he’s free. He says he will still be working, and he says one more thing: “I’m going to run the New York City Marathon this year.”
I’m speaking with Laura Cohen when I hear him say it. I’ve introduced myself to Schaunta and everyone I’ve met at the hearing as “the guy who helped Huwe out with the marathon,” and now that he has said it to the media, I know I’m going to be the guy helping Huwe out with the marathon once again.
I cannot wait.
Huwe Burton walks through the hallway on the third floor of the Bronx County Hall of Justice. He’s just told everyone he’s running the New York City Marathon for the Innocence Project in 2019. A photographer from the New York Times is hoping to get a photo of Huwe and his legal team, and Huwe is walking toward a wall to pose.
It has been over a year since we have seen one another in person, but Huwe spots me. It’s like we are old college friends who haven’t gotten together since graduation. He has hugged countless people already today and will hug countless more. He pulls me in anyway, and I tell him how happy I am for him.
“I might have to do this year’s marathon with you,” I say as we end our embrace.
“I’d like that,” Huwe says. “I’d like that a lot.”
It will not be easy, this year’s marathon. Once you are exonerated, all of your problems are not solved. Huwe, who now lives in Piscataway, New Jersey, had 20 years of his life taken from him. But the hopeless optimist has always persisted—which is why he is running the marathon this year, too.
He told me many times that this all had to have been for something. Now that he’s free, he is making the most of it. Huwe is putting his case, and others like it, in the spotlight. He knows he is not the only one who has been wronged. “It’s amazing how running affected me,” he says. “A person can find running even in the circumstance I was in, and it’s like you can just see freedom on a face, even when you’re running around a prison yard.”
He started running because he could own it. He has continued running because it’s a connection to others. Like music, it is a universal language for him now.
He is running the marathon for the Innocence Project. He is running the marathon for the Rutgers Law School clinic. He is running the marathon for his mom and his dad. And yes, he is running the marathon for himself.
For Huwe Burton, there is still a long way to go. But that has never stopped him before.
Written by: Liam Boylan-Pett
Edited by: Ashley Higginson and Allison Goldstein
Photos in Courthouse and Portraits of Huwe Burton by: Sameer Abdel-Khalek, courtesy of the Innocence Project
Photo of Huwe Burton running by: MarathonFoto
All other photos by Liam Boylan-Pett
Special thanks to the Innocence Project and the Rutgers Law School Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic