Commentary: Kansans generosity shows for freed man

To everyone else, it's just a red 2003 Chevrolet Tracker with gray interior and 46,000 miles.

To Darryl Burton, who spent 24 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, the car symbolizes much more.

The used vehicle represents a lifeline and a tangible sign of the generosity people have bestowed on him. The car represents his second chance in life.

It's a chance he's determined not to blow.

Burton was convicted in 1985 of capital murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years. He was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence or any motive tying him to a fatal gas station shooting in St. Louis in 1984.

He was released from the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Aug. 29, after Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan overturned the conviction.

Burton, who is from St. Louis, now lives in North Kansas City in an apartment that the Midwestern Innocence Project helped him secure.

On Thanksgiving Day, I wrote that Burton made a wise choice to rebuild his life in Kansas City. With no car or job, I was hopeful that people from this area might step forward to help him get back on his feet. I was right.

After an official with the Midwestern Innocence Project sent my story to other offices across the Midwest, Steve Stolze, a St. Louis attorney, read it and called the organization to see what he could do to help.

"I told them that I would love to get involved in finding Darryl some transportation and get the situation rectified," Stolze said. "It all came together pretty quickly. The car is low miles and in pretty good shape."

Stolze last week drove from St. Louis to Kansas City, where he purchased the Chevrolet, and then drove it over to Burton's apartment and handed over the keys.

Seeing Burton's reaction when the car was given to him was worth the effort, Stolze said.

"The presentation to Darryl was awesome," he said. "It was fantastic. That was the first time I met him when I pulled up in the car. What a great guy.

"I didn't get any sense of bitterness in him at all. It's just great for him to maintain that attitude after what he's been through."

Burton also has been offered a job with a health-care company in Overland Park that he should be starting soon.

"This is the best Christmas in 25 years," Burton said recently. "I'm excited. I'm ecstatic. I'm speechless. People have made this Christmas a blessing. It's on top of the fact that I've been released for wrongful conviction. This is just icing on the cake.

"There's a God, and he's in the blessing business. This is the best time of my life after experiencing the worst time of my life."

Burton said people's generosity had "renewed my faith in human-beings being compassionate and caring to each other."

Jay Swearingen, executive director of the Midwestern Innocence Project, said the effort to find Burton a job, a car and a place to stay represents a new mission for the organization, which has focused on trying to get innocent prisoners released from prison.

"Now we are helping to reintegrate those who are exonerated back into society," Swearingen said. "That's not something we had done before. Darryl represents the beginning of that. And we're happy to do it.

"All this talk about a bad economy, even with a bad economy, people were willing to reach into their pockets."

Burton is determined he's going to make the best of his second chance. He has everything he needs to prosper.

And that includes plenty of people right here in Kansas City pulling for him to succeed. That support might be more valuable to him than the red Chevrolet Tracker.