Starksboro student highlights injustice


STARKSBORO RESIDENT GRETA JENNISON, 14, has wanted to be a lawyer “since about third grade.” For her Eighth-Grade Challenge at Mount Abraham Union Middle School, she researched criminal law and discovered the Innocence Project, which works to free people who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

HUWE BURTON (CENTER), who was exonerated in 2019 after serving 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, shared his story with a local Zoom audience last week, as part of a project organized by Mount Abraham Union Middle School student Greta Jennison. Photo courtesy of Sameer Abdel-Khalek/Innocence Project
I was like, why would someone confess to a crime that he didn’t do, and then once I read it I was like, OK, yes — being scared and feeling trapped all makes sense. — Greta Jennison

STARKSBORO — When Mount Abraham Union Middle School student Greta Jennison began work on her Eighth-Grade Challenge last winter, she had no idea that her interest in the legal profession would evolve into a project that would enhance her neighbors’ understanding of racial injustice.

As millions of people all over the world gathered last month to protest the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, Jennison was planning a Zoom presentation by Huwe Burton, a Black man from the Bronx who was recently exonerated after serving 19 years in prison — for a murder he did not commit.

“I was like, Wow, I could really do something here,” Jennison told the Independent a few days after the presentation, recalling the sudden shift in the national conversation. “This could actually tie in with all that’s unfair with the justice system — and help people learn about it.”

Burton, 47, spoke to Jennison and her Zoom audience on June 24.

“In light of where we’re at today, I think it’s very fitting to have this conversation this evening,” he began, then told the story.

On the evening of Jan. 3, 1989, Burton, then 16, came home to find his mother stabbed to death.

“I’m screaming and I’m crying and I immediately go to grab the phone to call the police,” he said. But the phone cord in his parents’ bedroom had been used to bind his mother’s wrists. He raced to the hallway phone, called the police, went outside and waited.

Burton’s father had been visiting family in Jamaica at the time, so after officers with the NYPD had finished questioning Burton they took him to his godmother’s house north of the city.

“Once I got there I just crawled into bed,” Burton said. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t really sleep.”

After a couple of days, the NYPD wanted to talk to him again, so they brought him back to the Bronx precinct.

“And in about an hour, two hours into this interview, it went from (them) trying to understand what was going on to being accusatory.”

Burton was caught off-guard. He had been in school the day his mother was murdered, he had no criminal history and he was very close with both of his parents.

“Prior to this I had never been in contact with police before,” he told his Mount Abe Zoom audience. “I had never been questioned by police before, let alone inside an interrogation room in a precinct.”

As the hours wore on, three NYPD detectives — two white and one Black — isolated the sleep-deprived teenager, threatened him with additional charges, then promised to be lenient if he confessed to killing his mother.

Desperate to escape the precinct room, Burton confessed to a story the detectives had fabricated, believing he would eventually be remanded to his father and that his case would be tried in family court.

But by the time Burton left the precinct, news media were already amplifying the NYPD’s lie. In the New York Post, for instance, a huge bold headline read “Crack-Crazed Teen Stabs Mom to Death.”

Burton was convicted of murder in 1991.

Twenty-five years later, with the help of new attorneys, he would discover that the prosecutor in his murder trial had kept two files — one that was shared with the defense attorney, and one that contained evidence that would most certainly have led to Burton’s acquittal.

“What (the police) knew five, six days after (the murder) — it took us nearly 30 years to unearth and uncover,” Burton said during the Zoom event. “This is what I mean by people’s moral compasses being broken. Here was a 16-year-old child, and you have evidence that you know,” Burton said, pausing to collect himself. “You don’t do this.”

Burton was finally exonerated on Jan. 24, 2019. He is now pursuing a civil case against the people who took 19 years of his life away.

Jennison learned about Burton’s story through the Innocence Project (innocenceproject.org), one of three organizations that teamed up to help get Burton’s conviction overturned. 

The Innocence Project’s mission is to “free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”

Wrongfully convicted people who have so far been freed by the Innocence Project have collectively served 5,097.5 years in prison — or an average of about 26.5 years per person.

Nearly two-thirds of the defendants in the cases listed on the organization’s website are African American.

STUDENT PROJECT

Mount Abe teacher Jocelyn Foran, who acted as faculty adviser to Jennison’s project, introduced her to the Innocence Project.

“I think Greta was surprised and horrified by what she found,” Foran told the Independent, noting that Jennison became especially interested in eyewitness testimony and false confessions and how they can be engineered.

Indeed, it was a lot to take in for an eighth-grader with a budding interest in, but limited exposure to, the legal profession.

“I had never heard of false confessions before,” Jennison said. “I was like, why would someone confess to a crime that he didn’t do, and then once I read it I was like, OK, yes — being scared and feeling trapped all makes sense.”

Jennison, who just turned 14, believes she would have behaved the same way 16-year-old Burton did, she said.

“I feel like almost any teenager would react similar to that.”

Providing a way for students to go on such journeys of discovery is an important component of the school’s Eighth-Grade Challenge, Foran said. “It’s important to prioritize these opportunities for students to explore their passions and to support their work.”

Jennison’s journey will continue beyond her school project, she said. In the coming weeks, she plans to help organize more protests in support of Black Lives Matter, and has joined a student group that has begun exploring ways their school might update its curriculum.

Burton is glad to see renewed conversations about racism, he told his Zoom audience during the Q&A, but he reminded them that the injustices they’re seeing in 2020 are the same as the ones in 1989, which are the same as the ones in the 1960s — “I mean, we can just keep going back.”

With the exception of cellphone footage, “not much has changed,” he said. 

“Until we do the changing, until we acknowledge a lot of things, this is going to continue to happen. Because it has our blessing.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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