The system stole 19 years from Huwe Burton. It began the day he came home from school and found his mother Keziah Burton stabbed to death in their Bronx home.
In the days that followed, Burton was a shattered and fragile 16-year-old who had discovered his mother’s bloody body. But in the hands of police for 48 hours, he became a confessed killer — a confession he recanted a day later, albeit too late.
“When I was picked up I was told, my godmother was told, that I was just going in for a polygraph test,” Burton told PIX11 News.
Instead, police grilled Burton without the aid of counsel or a guardian.
“I hadn’t really slept, hadn’t really eaten and I couldn’t hold any food down. The only image I had in my head is what I saw coming home from school,” he said.
With Burton’s confession in hand, the NYPD and prosecutors pursued the case against him, even though a tenant of the family was caught driving Keziah Burton’s stolen vehicle two days later. That man, now believed to be the killer, died in a domestic incident before Burton’s case went to trial.
At the end of Burton’s trial, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 19 years based on a false and coerced confession before the conviction was overturned and he was released. It wasn’t until 2019 that he was fully exonerated.
According to Rebecca Brown, of the Innocence Project, Burton and others like him are the best advocates for reform. It was the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that investigates potential wrongful convictions, that unearthed evidence of psychologically coercive techniques used by police and revealed that prosecutors withheld evidence suggesting someone else was the killer.
According to Susan Friedman, Burton’s attorney who also works for the Innocence Project, the techniques used by detectives in Burton’s case were not new nor illegal.
“Because law enforcement is permitted to lie to people they are interrogating, you are more likely to end up with innocent people like Huwe, and others exonerated in New York State and across the country, having given false confessions to law enforcement,” Friedman said.
And when pressure is on law enforcement to make arrests, Burton believes people like him are more likely to become victims of wrongful conviction.
Less than 90 days after Burton was arrested and charged, it happened again.
“My case happened; I was arrested on Jan. 5, 1989,” Burton said. “And a little bit after that they arrested five young men in the park.”
The so-called “Central Park Five,” charged with the rape and beating of a jogger, would later become the “Exonerated Five” after their convictions were overturned — but not before they spent years in prison for a crime they did not commit.
One of those men, Yusef Salaam spent seven years in prison before the Innocence Project became involved in his case.
“Our lives were just beginning,” Salaam said. “And just like that our lives were almost over.”
Brown said police interrogation tactics are not widely known to the public.
“Quite frankly I think the public would be horrified to know that police can deploy deception in interrogations,” she said. “We now know there are 43 known false confessions in New York State, and those are false convictions predicated on false confessions.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, of the more than 2,600 exonerations between 1989 and 2019, 2,400 cases involved police and prosecutor misconduct, with Black defendants slightly more likely than White defendants to be victims.
Also among those fighting against deceptive police interrogation is state Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-20th District), who pointed out the hypocrisy of the practice.
“Most people are shocked that you cannot lie to the government on your taxes, or when you are in their custody,” Myrie said. “But it is perfectly legal for the government to lie to you if you’re being interrogated, accused of committing a crime.”
For that reason, Myrie sponsored a bill in Albany to amend criminal procedure and ban the use of deceptive interrogation techniques in New York. The bill would also require the vetting of confessions much like any other piece of evidence in a criminal proceeding.
Burton, meanwhile, continues to fight for others like him, along with Sen. Myrie and groups like the Innocence Project, working with lawmakers to end the practice of deceptive interrogations.
“The final word for me is always accountability,” Burton said. “Holding people accountable for what they did, what they knew and when they knew it.”
Correction: The length of Burton’s incarceration has been updated.