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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

First, prosecutor Brasel refused to grant Rick Gillespie and Chuck Gullion immunity, so these two critical witnesses exercised their Fifth Amendment privileges not to testify. Then Gayle Potter embellished her earlier statements by testifying that with Bill Dulin on his knees, "crying and out of breath," Joe Burrows had "smiled" as he pulled the trigger. (Potter, years later, would testify that she'd added this detail because Brasel had told her "I was going to have to make the death of Mr. Dulin more graphic ... and more heinous.") Probably most damaging, however, was Frye's agitated exchange with Ron Boyer as the jury listened.

"Didn't you tell me that you could also get me out of jail if I had stuck to this taped statement?" Frye snapped at Boyer as Burrows' lawyer questioned him on the witness stand about his now-denied recantation and renewed support of Potter's story.

"Ralph, there is no question to you right now," Boyer responded.

"Well, I'm handing you one."

"To answer your question, I told you that I would try."

"No, you didn't tell me that, you said you would if I stuck to the taped statement."

Boyer couldn't effectively respond without resigning as Burrows' attorney and testifying; this he declined to do and Michela declined to require.

It didn't matter that Frye never could offer a reason, other than "pure coincidence," why he and Potter had both made the same "mistake" of initially saying they'd driven up to Watseka with Burrows in a blue pickup. It didn't matter that the brother of Frye's girlfriend swore that Frye, at 10:20 on the night of Dulin's murder, opened the door for him at the Urbana trailer they all shared. It didn't matter that the now-distraught Boyer, flatly calling "master con artist" Gayle Potter the true killer, implored the jury: "Don't you see what they are trying to do to Joseph Burrows?" In the end, the jurors chose to believe the prosecutor's version of events.

On June 6, after deliberating three hours, they convicted Joe Burrows of first-degree murder. The key, jury foreman Tom Hendrickson would say later, was just what the lawyers had expected it would be--Ralph Frye's corroboration on the witness stand of Potter. "I don't see why you'd say you were at a murder scene when you weren't," Hendrickson explained. "And how you would know evidence police didn't know about."

The jurors had taken so little time and seemed so certain that Boyer decided it would be wiser not to let them determine Burrows' fate. Waiving the right to a jury sentencing, he left it to Judge Michela to decide whether Joe Burrows should live or die.

Michela at 56 is a garrulous man, respected in his county and not much inclined toward the isolation of a judge's chambers. After 22 years on the bench, he remains well-connected with his region's circuit of lawyers and law-enforcement officers--enough so to call Sgt. Eimen "Randy" and Sheriff Mathy "Joe." He also remains personally opposed to the death penalty. It is hard to say precisely what the judge thought as he faced the momentous question handed to him by Ron Boyer.

Michela's own comments over the years offer decidedly mixed indications. On the bench midway through Burrows' second trial, frustrated over Frye's vacillations, he had muttered, "I don't know if this young man was ever in Iroquois County until he was brought there on the 9th of November... I'm not sure if any of us know the truthfulness of any statement ever given in this trial by anybody." At Burrows' sentencing hearing, he spoke of "the unwillingness of this court to believe (Gayle Potter's) testimony" and noted that the physical evidence "seems to all have been found in the presence and in the possession of Gayle Potter." Yet at that same hearing, Michela also talked about "the overwhelming situation of a young man ... being awakened in the early hours of the morning seemingly not having time ... to fabricate a story putting himself at the murder scene and testifying as to what occurred...." And this past fall, speaking in his chambers after finally freeing Burrows, Michela declared that he'd found Frye "compelling and believable," and because of him, would have voted to convict Burrows if he'd been on the jury.

In the end, Michela says, it just doesn't matter what he thought. "Even if I'd not shared the jury's view," he observes, "I would have sentenced him anyway. My belief in the jury system is that unshakable."

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