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The Framing of Joe Burrows : The Story That Sent Him to Death Row for Murder Changed Many Times From the Day It Was Told By His Accuser, a Woman Known for Her Convincing Lies. But the Justic System Had Decided He Was Guilty, and It Took a Lawyer's Bond With a Sociopath to Set Him Free.

December 18, 1994|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel, a Times national correspondent, is the author of "A Death in White Bear Lake" and "Shades of Gray," both published by Bantam Books. His last article for this magazine described a South Carolina hospital that turns over pregnant substance abusers to the police

When Circuit Court Judge John Michela and Death Row convict Joe Burrows warily faced each other in a Kankakee County, Ill., courtroom on Sept. 8, it was by no means their first encounter. In the spring of 1989, Michela had presided over Burrows' two trials on first-degree murder charges. The first trial had ended in a deadlocked jury; the second had ended in Burrows' conviction. The same two eyewitnesses--a small-time cocaine dealer and a scared, dim 22-year-old--had composed the sum of the state's case at both trials. The difference was, the jurors at the second trial believed them.

It had mattered little to Michela what he thought of this result. It had mattered little to Michela that he found the coke dealer, Gayle Potter, to be utterly unbelievable and wasn't sure if the 22-year-old, Ralph Frye Jr., even knew what he was saying. What had mattered to Michela--all that mattered--was what the jury thought.

Michela believed powerfully in the notion that jurors alone were the finders of act. He would never overrule a verdict or tell a jury he disagreed. Juries were the great defense against abuses of power, including his own. If the jury chose to believe Ralph Frye and Gayle Potter, that was it for Michela. The jury had listened to Frye whine on the witness stand, listened to him go on and on and on. It was up to the jury to fathom that, and they'd fathomed that Joe Burrows was guilty.

Not even Joe Burrows' final desperate plea before sentencing--"I'd like to ask the court a question. Just whose job is it to see that justice is done?"--had swayed the judge. Michela sentenced Burrows by the book. He could discern no mitigating circumstances, so by Illinois law, Burrows looked to be a suitable candidate for the executioner. "It is the judgment of this court," Michela had proclaimed on Aug. 1, 1989, "that this defendant be hereby sentenced to death."

Now, almost exactly five years later, Burrows was back before him, expressionless at the defense table, handcuffed at his wrists, shackled at his waist and ankles. Sitting behind him, family and friends were nervously inching forward in their seats. Standing at his side, defense attorney Kathleen Zellner was talking.

"I cannot cite any precedent for Your Honor because there is none," she was saying. "Maybe that should tell us something about the enormity of the tragedy played out in this courtroom... . It is time for the truth to prevail in this courtroom."

The words had to grate on Michela. I don't get into truth, the judge liked to observe. It's what's provable that matters. You have to separate what you believe from the facts. Faith is for Sundays.

"It is time for these shackles to come off," Zellner was saying. "I am asking Your Honor to grant my motion because it is right and just. It is time, Your Honor, to send Mr. Burrows home."

From Death Row to freedom in a morning--the notion left the lawyers in Michela's courtroom full of wonder. But so did all that had emerged since the day Michela condemned Burrows. Over four days in late July, at a special hearing in Michela's courtroom, they'd all listened, transfixed, to a cascade of revelations. With the hearing over, Michela no longer needed look to a jury. Finally, it was his judgment that mattered. He did not hesitate. He nodded at a prison guard, who began fumbling to remove Burrows' manacles and leg irons. A moment later, the chains clanged to the courtroom floor, echoing to the high ceiling. Burrows' wife, Sherri, rushed into his arms.

Much has followed this extraordinary moment in an Illinois courtroom. The Burrows family has celebrated, the murder victim's family has wept, the news media, TV talk shows and movie producers have scrambled. Judge Michela has been hailed, Kathleen Zellner cheered, the legal system studied.

Still, the story is not over. Despite her victory, Zellner plans to appeal Michela's ruling. She admires what she calls the judge's "gutsy" decision, but she laments what she regards as Michela's reluctance, in his ruling, to acknowledge just how an innocent man came to spend five years on Death Row. She wants responsibility fixed. She wants it understood that judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys must look to themselves, not the legal system's thicket of rules and procedures, for justice.

"The judge," Zellner maintains, "is not facing up to what happened."

William Dulin's body, clad in long johns, lay face up on his living room floor for 36 hours before his daughter Patricia discovered it at 8 a.m. on Nov. 8, 1988. Called soon after to Dulin's farmhouse in a remote reach of central Illinois' Iroquois County, about nine miles east of Watseka and 75 miles south of Chicago, state crime scene technician Tommy Martin found no signs of forced entry and no fingerprints.

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