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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

That effort surely wasn't harmed when Sheriff Mathy, near the end of January, transferred Ralph Frye to a cell next to Gayle Potter's. Mathy--who, it should be noted, was Brasel's campaign manager--now regrets this arrangement, although he calls critics of it "armchair quarterbacks." He also maintains that his jail is so small, with just 30 cells on two floors, that wherever he put Frye, he could have "yelled back and forth" with either Burrows or Potter. Yelling wasn't necessary where Frye ended up, though. Between his cell and Potter's was a food slot, through which the two prisoners could, and did, talk for hours every day. Potter and Frye describe their conversations in similar terms.

"I scared the living daylights out of Ralph," Potter says. "You need to see him. He's borderline retarded, real slow. It was not hard to coerce him. I told him, 'They're going to put us on Death Row unless you go along with my story, unless you do it Tony's way.' I worked on the details with him over and over." Potter grins at the memory. "I convinced him they wouldn't believe he wasn't there."

Frye agrees: " 'We gotta make it sound better, then they'll help us,' she says to me. She talked about what to say, what happened, how we got there, how we left. We rehearsed. They wanted to make sure it was all consistent. I tried to say this was wrong, that I was never there, but what could I do? What could I do?"

Frye went to trial first, in late February in the Iroquois County courthouse, with Judge Michela imported from Kankakee County to preside because the local judge had a conflict of interest. Frye had no occasion then to demonstrate what he'd learned in jail, for his court-appointed defense counsel, Michael Jones, didn't call him to the stand. Jones didn't call Frye's alibi witnesses, either, or move to suppress Frye's taped statement, even though he was aware of Gullion's and Gillespie's contradictory accounts. The jury, after listening to Gayle Potter's testimony and Frye's statement, readily convicted him of armed robbery and murder. He was not then sentenced and sent to a state prison, however. Because of an Illinois rule requiring equal sentences for the same crimes, Michela wanted to wait until the others were tried. So Frye remained in the Iroquois County jail cell adjacent to Potter's.

Brasel now also joined in the communications between Potter and Frye, in a series of jailhouse meetings allowed, but not attended, by the two prisoners' attorneys. Jail logs and Brasel's billing statements show he had 25 meetings with Frye and 12 with Potter. Brasel describes these as part of the normal preparation for trial; Potter and Frye remember them differently.

"Brasel was threatening life or 85 years if I didn't cooperate," Potter says. "Brasel was promising immunity if I did. As different pieces of evidence were discovered and explained to me, I would change the story to fit them... Tony Brasel would supply me with the fact and then I had to supply the supporting story for it."

Frye's account is similar: "Brasel was talking about a 35-to-65-year sentence, and saying I could help myself. He told me the taped statement wasn't very good the way it was stated, so he thought that it would be better if we would prepare the wording a little better...I'd say this is wrong, but Brasel would say, 'Well, if you don't help me, I can't help you.' "

Brasel says none of this happened. He denies making threats, offering immunity or feeding evidence. He also denies ever meeting with Potter or Frye without Sheriff Mathy in the room, even though the jail logs don't always indicate Mathy's presence. All he ever asked of his two star witnesses, Brasel says, is "the truth." Potter's charges, he flatly declares, "are a lie."

Whoever is right, by the time Joe Burrows went to trial for the first time in mid-March 1989, with Judge Michela once again presiding in Iroquois County, Potter's and Frye's initial stories had evolved considerably, and to great effect.

On the day of Dulin's murder, Potter now testified, she met her drug supplier at the Mobil station around 4 in the afternoon, not 9 at night. There, Burrows and Frye did not push her into a blue pickup and drive her to Watseka, but rather, told her to meet them in a parking lot in Watseka between 10 and 11 p.m. Potter drove to Watseka with Gullion and Gillespie, dropped them at her cousin's apartment, then met Burrows and Frye at the parking lot. The two men followed her to Dulin's house, they in a blue pickup, she in the black Olds. When the old man let Potter into his house, Burrows and Frye pushed their way through the front door. When Dulin refused her request for a loan, Burrows pulled a gun and ordered him to write a check.

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