‘From the pit to the pulpit’: Inmate 153063 will become a megachurch pastor in Leawood

Darryl Burton, 54, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he said he didn’t commit, spoke with high school students in Olathe recently. Burton, who was released in 2008, will soon have a master’s degree in divinity.
Darryl Burton, 54, who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he said he didn’t commit, spoke with high school students in Olathe recently. Burton, who was released in 2008, will soon have a master’s degree in divinity.

Darryl Burton sits a few feet from his desk, where an open laptop waits.

He’s got a research paper to write. At least 10 pages on the doctrine of Scripture and what the words in the Bible mean to him. After that, he has two more graduate papers and some reading to wrap up for seminary at Saint Paul School of Theology.

Pretty heavy stuff for a man who never finished high school. And who not long ago was a skeptic, full of questions about God and the religion his late grandmother clung to so closely. Burton had stopped going to church as a young teen, unable to relate or see how God was working in his life — living in urban St. Louis, where he and his eight siblings, mother and grandmother were stifled by poverty.

His grandmother’s words warned: “One of these days, boy, you’re going to need Jesus. I only hope you remember to call on him.”

Today, with the booming voice of a seasoned preacher, Burton tells his story across the country and abroad to prisoners and churchgoers, students and civic groups. And he recalls how his grandmother’s words echoed in his mind during the late 1990s as he faced life behind bars as Inmate 153063 inside the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Eventually, he says, those words, along with a newfound faith and a team of people who believed in him, led him “from the pit to the pulpit.”

“I just kept hearing, ‘One of these days, boy…,’ ” Burton says, sitting inside his office on the campus of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood. “I just couldn’t get that out of my mind. So I said, ‘OK, let’s learn about this Jesus.’ 

Part of Burton’s story has been talked about across the country for years, flashed in headlines and television newscasts. He served 24 years behind bars for the murder of a St. Louis man before a judge ruled that his 1985 trial was constitutionally flawed and overturned that conviction. It was based on the testimony of two men, one who kept changing his story and another who had more felony convictions than the jury was told.

Since his 2008 release, which lawyers and supporters fought eight years for, Burton has been asked to speak in venues from big halls to biker bars. Many have marveled at his ability to move beyond the nightmare of spending nearly all of his adult life in a prison cell for a crime he said he didn’t commit.

As Burton sees it: “If I hadn’t forgiven them, I would still be in prison. A spiritual prison.”

This month, he completes seminary. And in January he’ll start full time at the Leawood megachurch as an associate pastor in congregational care. He’ll continue some of the work he has done as a Church of the Resurrection intern and pastoral associate, helping families in need and working with a men’s group, showing people what true forgiveness looks like.

“There’s no one who represents himself more humbly than Darryl,” said Karen Lampe, the church’s executive pastor of congregational care. “He just wants to do the very best he can. I think he’s trying to make up for lost time.

“He is one amazing gift for us.”

A gift the church wouldn’t have received if not for the letters Burton wrote and some of the answers he received. He estimates that he wrote more than 700 letters during his time behind bars, reaching out to legislators and attorneys, Oprah Winfrey and groups dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted inmates.

He penned an especially memorable one in 1998, before his religious skepticism turned to conviction.

“Dear Jesus Christ,” he wrote.

“If you’re real and you know all things, you and I know I’m innocent. If you help me get out of this place, not only will I serve you, but I will tell the world about you.”

“Sincerely yours, Darryl Burton.”

A two-day trial

On a June day in 1984, Burton had gone to see his parole officer. He was 22, had his GED and planned to start classes at Forest Park Community College in St. Louis. He wanted to study business administration and sociology.

After a burglary charge, Burton was set on his future. He wanted to spend more time with his infant daughter.

Then St. Louis police showed up and arrested him in the death of Donald Ball, a man who had been shot while filling his car with gasoline. Even as Burton was being booked into the city jail, he thought everything would be OK.

The truth would come out. After all, he wasn’t even in the state when the murder happened. He’d been in Washington state, visiting a friend.

Witnesses said the man who shot Ball was a light-skinned African-American. Burton has dark skin, tagged with many nicknames growing up, including Lights Out.

The killer was described as 5 feet 5 inches. Burton is 5 feet 10.

No physical evidence or suggested motive ever tied him to Ball’s death.

“I thought I’d be let go within 24 hours,” Burton said.

He said he saw his public defender just once before the trial, and no one worked to get receipts or other documents that would have proved he was in another state at the time of the shooting.

Burton recalls the trial lasted two or three days. The prosecutor called two witnesses. One was a man he’d never met, the other a man he’d known in his younger days. Both said Burton killed Ball.

“I couldn’t believe people would go in and lie on me,” Burton said.

It took jurors less than an hour to come back with their verdict. Burton was sentenced to 50 years without the possibility of parole.

Before he left the courtroom, he had a message for the judge: “I don’t know how long it will take, but I’m going to fight this case until I prove I’m innocent.”

Burton spent countless hours in the prison law library, researching and writing briefs and motions. He told other inmates that one day he would be freed. They told him he didn’t understand the system.

“I had moments when I felt really sure I was going to get out,” Burton said. “And then I had moments when I was just depressed and wanted to give up. My mother would leave the visiting room and I would say, ‘That’s the last time I’m going to see her.’ I didn’t want to live.”

In 1990, he heard back from Centurion Ministries, a small organization in New Jersey. Founder James McCloskey and his group were dedicated to taking on cases of inmates wrongly convicted. Because of the demand for help, it would be 10 years, the group told Burton, before it could take on his case.

He would wait. He wrote Centurion Ministries two or three letters a year to make sure the group didn’t forget about him.

In the late 1990s, Burton picked up the Bible and focused on the words in red ink, signifying the words of Jesus. He related to the man and his stories. Some of Jesus’ edicts were harder.

“Jesus said, ‘Love your enemy,’ ” Burton said. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ 

Pray for them. “And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right, I’ll pray a building falls on them.’ 

Forgive them — “That’s impossible.”

Through gritting teeth, Burton started to pray for the people who had lied about him, for the people inside the justice system.

He read Luke 23:34: “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ 

After a while, he no longer prayed through clenched teeth. The words and intention flowed freely.

“It became real, and I began wanting what was best for those people.”

‘Learning to walk’

The world changed without him. His first day at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, he had walked under a massive welcome banner with the words “Leave all your hopes, family and dreams behind.”

He walked out of prison in August 2008, unsure of the freedom and hopes and dreams he could have.

At TGI Fridays that night, he asked Cheryl Pilate, a Kansas City attorney who worked with Centurion Ministries since 2000 to free him, if the restroom was an area where he could go.

“It was obvious he was overwhelmed,” Pilate said. “When you haven’t been in the outside world for 24 years, everything is new, everything is different. It takes a while to come to terms with it.”

Inside the restroom, he wondered what was wrong with the toilet. It kept flushing on its own. And at the sink, why didn’t the faucet have knobs? How could you get the water to come on without any knobs? (A stranger helped.)

Technology flustered him. Laptops and cellphones. The Internet was new to him. He would struggle getting a job, with a 24-year gap in job experience. He had no driver’s license, no set plan for the future.

Initially, he would tour around telling his story. After reuniting with his daughter, the two of them would sometimes speak to groups together.

When Burton’s future wife first heard him tell his story, she remembers thinking how gifted he was. She had grown up six doors down from Burton’s family in St. Louis and knew his younger siblings.

She wasn’t surprised when he wanted to go to seminary in 2012. But the couple didn’t know how difficult it would be.

For Darryl, it was like being “flown to Japan and just dropped off.”

“I didn’t know the language, anything,” Burton said. “It was like learning to walk.”

Everything about the campus was foreign. Taking notes. Studying. Understanding heavy theology.

“He needed complete silence some days,” said Valerie Burton, who married Darryl in 2011. “I had to be quiet, no TV. … All of his books were spread out on the dining room table. He’d stay up late, overnight sometimes. He’d fall asleep in the chair. … Some days he wanted to give up.”

But he always went back to one thought, she said: “If I can make it through prison, I can make it through something like this.”

When Burton sat down to write his first research paper — he’s cranked out many 15- to 20-page papers in the past three years — he grabbed a yellow legal pad and a pen. He planned to write it out longhand and turn it in. His wife laughs at the memory now and how she explained to him they needed to get a computer.

When he didn’t understand something, he asked for help. And he often started the conversation explaining why he was so lost.

“I remember him coming in,” said Margaretta Narcisse, associate dean of students at Saint Paul School of Theology. “He sat in my office and talked about where he has come from and how he wanted to make sure he would be able to finish what he started. He knew that he was coming into a foreign land and he wanted to be successful.”

And despite having lost more than two decades of his life, he never expected anything, said Stan Basler, visiting professor of restorative justice and prison ministry at Saint Paul.

The student’s work on the long papers is what impressed him. Basler tells students he doesn’t want a book report — he wants to hear their voices in the paper. But he also wants to make sure they’re engaged with the material and understand it. Some papers come in with few sources and little focus on the material.

With Burton, Basler would see papers where two-thirds of the content was on the material.

“He wasn’t asking anyone for a free ride,” Basler said. “He really applied himself. It was obvious to me in every course that he was working hard.”

‘He’s helped people’

On a recent Friday morning, Burton’s voice filled a classroom inside a Johnson County high school.

“All of you have been on this earth long enough to have someone say something about you that wasn’t true,” he said, dressed in sharp dark pants and shirt, a sparkling cross around his neck. “Imagine being put in a closet, in a box, for 24 years, and you can’t get out because someone lied on you.”

For nearly an hour, the two dozen high school students sat fixed on Burton’s words. No one yawned or doodled. No one tried to pass a note or talk to a friend.

It’s what Burton typically gets when he speaks. No matter where he goes, no matter what crowd he’s talking to, everyone understands injustice, he says.

And his message of hope and forgiveness? Very powerful, says Lampe, the minister.

At Church of the Resurrection, where Burton started as an intern in 2013, he’s visited homes to talk with families going through rough times. Before Lampe’s son had surgery last year, she wanted Burton to be the one to give him a blessing — “I knew it would be beautiful.”

Burton also leads a men’s group at the church where members have experienced problems from addiction to incarceration to relationship woes.

“He’s helped people in our congregation that have forgiveness issues,” Lampe said.

Earlier this month, she sat with Burton and went over his annual review. She gave him goals for the year and told him he’d have until January 2017 to complete them. But she’s learning that’s not how Burton works.

“He said, ‘They told us in prison when we had something to do, we had to walk out and start doing it,’ ” Lampe said. “ ‘I’m going to walk out and start doing it.’ 

The lessons from behind bars, and his experiences with the criminal justice system, creep up in other ways.

He wakes early, usually around 4:30. That’s when he’d get up in prison. He had to leave himself enough time to get ready before the call to breakfast.

And everywhere he goes, whether it’s to a movie or to a convenience store to buy gas or a soda, he asks for a receipt. He wants proof that he was there. Every receipt goes into a drawer, and at the end of the year, they go into a plastic grocery bag. The bag goes into a stack in the closet.

He’ll soon add the bag of 2015 receipts to the pile.

“I didn’t have a receipt last time,” he said, eyes wide. “And I was locked up because of it. I couldn’t prove where I was.”

Though he finishes seminary this month, he won’t receive his master of divinity until a ceremony in May.

“There’s a lot of temptation to see him simply as a miracle, one of those amazing things that happen,” Pilate said. “But no one waved a magic wand over him and then he was all of a sudden the amazing man we see today. He’s worked very hard.”

For now, Burton will continue to share not only his experiences, but the Scriptures and stories from the Bible.

They helped him, he said, at a time when the only thing or person he had faith in was himself. Now he wants to make sure he’s lived up to that letter he wrote in 1998.

“I feel like Jesus kept his part of the deal,” Burton said. “And I feel compelled to keep mine. I’m trying to keep my commitment.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

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