295 F.3d 839 (8th Cir. 2002), 01-2259, Burton v. Dormire

Docket Nº:01-2259.
Citation:295 F.3d 839
Party Name:Darryl BURTON, Appellant, v. David DORMIRE, Jeremiah Nixon, Appellees.
Case Date:July 08, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Page 839

295 F.3d 839 (8th Cir. 2002)

Darryl BURTON, Appellant,


David DORMIRE, Jeremiah Nixon, Appellees.

No. 01-2259.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 8, 2002

Submitted: May 16, 2002.

Page 840

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 841

Cheryl A. Pilate, argued, Kansas City, Missouri, for appellant.

Michael J. Spillane, argued, Jefferson City, Missouri (Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon, on the brief), for appellee.

Before BOWMAN, MAGILL and BYE, Circuit Judges.

BYE, Circuit Judge.

The writ of habeas corpus balances the constitutional imperative of a fair criminal trial with respect for state court judgments and the finality thereby achieved for victims of crime and society at large. The writ serves as a "bulwark against convictions that violate fundamental fairness," Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 126, 102 S.Ct. 1558, 71 L.Ed.2d 783 (1982) (quotation omitted), by providing "an additional safeguard against compelling an innocent man to suffer an unconstitutional loss of liberty." Stone v. Powell, 428 U.S. 465, 491 n. 31, 96 S.Ct. 3037, 49 L.Ed.2d 1067 (1976). At the same time, however, "[l]iberal allowance of the writ . . . degrades the prominence of the trial itself," Engle, 456 U.S. at 127, 102 S.Ct. 1558, and complicates our unique system of federalism, Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 420, 436-37, 120 S.Ct. 1479, 146 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000). Accommodating these frequently opposing principles has long produced controversy.

Debate has intensified in recent years as Congress and the federal courts have limited access to the writ in reaction to increasing numbers of habeas petitions. The limitations include a confounding array of procedural impediments that prevent consideration of the merits of claims, as well as substantive barriers that establish modes of review utterly inhospitable to prisoners. Many barriers and impediments represent sound efforts to curb the groundswell of frivolous and duplicative habeas petitions. But the writ of habeas

Page 842

corpus is not a one-way path designed to defeat prisoners' claims. Rather, our habeas jurisprudence is a balancing act requiring careful attention to each of the important, yet often opposing, principles at stake. Even as we screen meritless petitions, therefore, we must take care not to shut the door to prisoners whose claims cause us to doubt the fairness of their convictions.

The present case suggests we may not yet have achieved the optimal balance. Darryl Burton's habeas petition depicts a troubling scenario. One cannot read the record in this case without developing a nagging suspicion that the wrong man may have been convicted of capital murder and armed criminal action in a Missouri courtroom. Burton was convicted on the strength of two eyewitness accounts. Since his trial and imprisonment, new evidence has come to light that shakes the limbs of the prosecution's case. One eyewitness has recanted and admitted perjury. The other eyewitness's veracity has been questioned by a compatriot who avers it was physically impossible for him to have seen the crime. A layperson would have little trouble concluding Burton should be permitted to present his evidence of innocence in some forum. Unfortunately, Burton's claims and evidence run headlong into the thicket of impediments erected by courts and by Congress. Burton's legal claims permit him no relief, even as the facts suggest he may well be innocent. Mindful of our obligation to apply the law, but with no small degree of reluctance, we deny Burton a writ.


Donald Ball was murdered at an Amoco gas station in St. Louis on the night of June 4, 1984. A gunman ran up to Ball as he filled his gas tank. The gunman chased Ball across the station lot and shot him several times. Police eventually arrested Burton and the state charged him with capital murder and armed criminal action. The state was unable to procure physical evidence implicating Burton, but it produced two eyewitnesses, Claudex Simmons and Eddie Walker, to testify that Burton was the gunman.

Simmons said he had been standing in line to buy cigarettes at the Amoco station when the shooting took place. He told the jury he knew Burton and had seen him shoot Ball. He also testified Burton ran north off the Amoco lot after the shooting. But Simmons's trial testimony was inconsistent, with his statements to police during the murder investigation. Simmons had initially told police he did not see the shooter. And in one pretrial interview, Simmons told police he was exiting a liquor store next to the Amoco station when he heard shots and saw the shooter.

The state had obtained Simmons's testimony at trial by reaching a plea bargain with him on an attempted robbery charge. Simmons told the jury he would receive a one-year sentence on the robbery charge if he testified truthfully at Burton's trial, and a three-year sentence if he lied or refused to testify. Burton alleges Simmons also received a second plea bargain for an unrelated stealing felony, but told neither the jury nor Burton the terms of that deal. Burton claims the second plea bargain was entered to secure Simmons's testimony against him at trial, though there is scant evidence in the record to confirm Burton's suspicions.

The second eyewitness was Eddie Walker. After the shooting, Walker told officers he was standing on the Amoco lot when Ball drove up to buy gas. He saw a gunman walk onto the station lot from the south side and shoot Ball. Walker also told police the gunman ran south after shooting Ball (not north, as Simmons stated) and

Page 843

sped away in a blue Buick. Walker said he had known both Burton and Ball for roughly ten years and could identify Burton as the gunman from photographs.

Walker told the jury a different story than he told officers, however. Walker testified he had never seen Ball drive up to the Amoco station in the first place. Likewise, he did not see the gunman approach, because he had been drinking from a half-pint of gin or vodka with friends next to the side of the nearby liquor store when the first shot rang out. Hearing that shot, Walker claimed he turned and saw Burton shoot Ball again, then run east across the street, before circling back and ending up on the south side of the Amoco lot. Walker also testified Burton had not sped from the scene in a Buick.

The state's only significant evidence of Burton's guilt was the eyewitness testimony of Simmons and Walker, though the state offered some proof of motive. Ball's first cousin, Cynthia Whitfield, told a police officer after the shooting that Ball and Burton had been feuding before the murder. According to Whitfield, Ball's girlfriend (who was apparently a prostitute) had left him and taken up with Burton. Whitfield's account was undermined, however, because she identified a third man as her cousin's murderer, and because Ball's girlfriend later denied any feud between Ball and Burton.

A jury convicted Burton of capital murder and armed criminal action in March 1985. A...

To continue reading