Alexius McNeal, a 13-year-old living in Bayview-Hunters Point, was killed by a single gunshot to the back of her head on the morning of April 21, 1994. The girl was found dead in her mother's bedroom, her legs protruding from an open closet, and her head resting in a pool of blood. The bedroom was in disarray, with dresser drawers pulled open and a jewelry box overturned on the bed. Nothing was missing from the house other than $10 and an heirloom gun stored in a box in the closet.
During a visit to the McNeals' house that afternoon, Ludrate Burton, a second cousin of Alexius' mother Margaret, found the body. Almost immediately, he became the primary suspect in the case. He was, undeniably, an easy target. A drug-using ex-con with an extensive criminal history of robberies, Burton had a reputation for being "nasty" and a "bad actor" according to people who knew him from the neighborhood. Nearly two years after he discovered the body, he was tried and convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. It was his third strike.
From the outset, Burton has maintained his innocence, and no forensic evidence links him to the crime. Fingerprints lifted from the jewelry box, a clock, and the closet door do not match Burton's. Investigators tested a pair of slippers that Burton wore on the day of the murder for blood, and found none.
The prosecutor theorized that Burton struggled with Alexius before shooting her, even though he was ill at the time with a liver ailment. Burton, who reportedly had a difficult time getting up a flight of stairs, frequently used an oxygen tank to breathe and was taking regular dialysis treatments. In 1994, he weighed about 120 pounds, whereas Alexius McNeal stood 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 186.
Aside from the lack of forensic evidence, Burton's case is also a textbook example of the problems introduced by using jailhouse informants, one of the frequent causes of wrongful convictions identified by the Innocence Project Network. After close scrutiny, the local Innocence Projects took up Burton's case in 2001.
"They're pulling something out of Hollywood," says Elliott Beckelman, the deputy district attorney handling the case. "A teenage girl was viciously killed. Why would you put the victim's family through this based on a theory?"
"Snitches," as informants are known in prison parlance, offer facts about a crime to police, often in hopes of more lenient treatment. Using informants is an established practice among law enforcement personnel, and sometimes it's the only way police are able to gain insight into a crime. But this setup presents a conflict of interest — the better the informant's data, the likelier he is to be treated well. Thus, informants have been known to lie in order to curry favor with police or prosecutors.
The prosecution's case against Ludrate Burton relied heavily on the testimony of Obie Jacobs, an ex-con and the only person able to tie Burton to the murder. According to Jacobs, Burton confessed to the killing when they were put in the same jail cell while Jacobs awaited trial for two robberies by knifepoint.
Jacobs had testified in other murder trials before — and the prison-savvy Burton knew this. Soon after he and Jacobs were celled together in June 1994, Burton called his attorney at the time, Daro Inouye of the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, and asked to be moved. That request was denied. About two months later Jacobs contacted Napoleon Hendrix, one of the detectives investigating the case, whom Jacobs says he had known for decades and who had helped the criminal get released on his own recognizance before. (Hendrix and former Police Chief Earl Sanders were found by a San Francisco judge to have engaged in misconduct in the cases of two recently exonerated men.)
In August 1994, Jacobs worked with Hendrix to tape statements about Burton's alleged confession. Jacobs told police that Burton entered the McNeal house between 6:30 and 7:30 a.m., overpowered Alexius, and then shot her in the head because "the little bitch had it coming." But a medical examiner said that the girl had been dead for six to eight hours before he performed an autopsy at about 7:30 p.m. — placing her time of death between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Jacobs also said that Burton traded the gun to a guy named Shiny for crack cocaine, but this information turned out to be misleading.
The day after he offered those taped statements, Jacobs got back in touch with Hendrix because, he said, he had learned more about the murder: He revealed that $10 had been taken from the McNeal house. This piece of information had been kept secret from the press and the public so that the police would know if a confession was legitimate.
Burton's trial attorney, Cliff Gould, implied that Hendrix had fed Jacobs the information himself, but Gould couldn't show some of the evidence he had. Though Jacobs had once written a letter to a judge saying that Hendrix had "stuck his neck out" for him in the past, it wasn't allowed in during trial. Gould also planned to have Daro Inouye testify that Burton would not have confessed to a known "snitch," but Inouye wasn't allowed to take the witness stand.
After giving statements about the case in 1995, Jacobs, who swore that he wasn't getting rewarded for doing so, was released on his own recognizance without bail — that is, allowed to go home and await trial for the robberies — which is unusual for someone charged with such serious crimes. Three years later, the district attorney offered Jacobs a plea bargain that would set him free almost immediately, though he had originally faced up to 24 years in prison. The district attorney explained in court that the new sentence was offered for "reasons that I wish not to disclose on the record."
The day that Alexius McNeal was murdered, Ludrate Burton walked to the McNeal house at about noon, eager to ask his cousin about a Pontiac Bonneville she was planning to give him. When Margaret McNeal got home at about 4 p.m., Burton was already there — a neighbor said he had been waiting outside since around 12:30 p.m. Burton accompanied McNeal into the house.
Once inside, McNeal began to notice things that seemed out of place. A kitchen light was on. A box of unopened hairbrushes she didn't recognize sat in the living room. A TV was on in the rear bedroom. McNeal commented on the television, and Burton offered to turn it off. Heading down the hallway, he noticed blood stains and followed them to Alexius' body. He called out to McNeal, who came running.
McNeal began crying and ran out of the house. "Why?" she said tearfully as she paced along the sidewalk. "Why? Why this have to happen to my baby?"
Burton, who had followed McNeal outside, said, "Well, she just got shot. She just got shot."
Because of this comment, Burton became the first suspect in the case; the medical examiner had not yet arrived, but Burton seemed to know the cause of death. Police also found his belligerent behavior suspect. And when Margaret McNeal noticed an heirloom gun missing, Burton told her he could buy it back from someone he knew. (Burton has told Ed Sidawi, an Innocence Project law student at Golden Gate University, that he doesn't remember offering to retrieve the gun. Sidawi also says that Burton simply made assumptions about Alexius' cause of death. Burton's jailhouse lawyer, Donald Randolph, advised Burton not to speak to me about his case.)
Oliver Johnson, an ex-con and drug dealer, testified that Burton came to his house on the morning of the murder and traded a gun for crack, though Johnson has never gone by the name "Shiny." A ballistics expert tested the gun and found that the bullets in it did not match the one found in the back of Alexius McNeal's head, but due to complicated science involving firing patterns, he couldn't exclude it as the murder weapon. Margaret McNeal testified that the gun was the one missing from her closet.
The box of hairbrushes she had noticed also came into play. During a press conference, Earl Sanders held up the box and asked anyone who had information about the case to contact him. He offered a $10,000 reward. Within days, a relative of Burton called the police, asked immediately about the cash reward, and said that the box of brushes was similar to those stored in Burton's bedroom. But Diane Thompson, Burton's sister-in-law and housemate, testified that she did not remember seeing brushes of that kind when she tidied Burton's room. A cocaine addict, Thompson is not on friendly terms with Burton. Still, she testified that she had seen him at home on the morning of the murder, taking oxygen, and that he had been very sick a week before.
In the late '80s, a convicted felon demonstrated on 60 Minutes how he could make a series of phone calls from prison and get enough information to implicate a suspect in a crime he'd only read about in newspapers. As a result of California legislation enacted after the broadcast, any rewards or deals made with an informant now need to be documented, and a judge can choose to instruct the jury that jailhouse informants are not always reliable.
Many criminal justice reformists say those measures are not enough. They insist that a hearing should be held prior to the trial so a judge can determine if an informant is credible, as is the practice in Oklahoma.
The California District Attorneys Association's Dave LaBahn demurs. "The jailhouse informant issue is absolutely minuscule," he says. "I think people are not respecting the juries. To say that a prosecutor could bring in an informant who is clearly trying to work off a beef, and to say that that jury is going to go ahead and convict on that testimony alone, defies reality."
But Rob Warden of the Innocence Project Network says that snitches are a persistent cause of wrongful convictions. "About 25 percent of all cases of wrongful convictions that we've identified have involved jailhouse snitches," says Warden, who is also the executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Illinois. "We've gone and talked to jurors after the fact and asked them, 'What did you think about the snitch?' And one juror said, 'I didn't find him that credible, but who am I to judge?'"
For two years, a changing cast of Golden Gate University law school students has logged up to 180 hours a semester on the Burton case. In May 2003, under the guidance of professor Susan Rutberg, third-year law student Ed Sidawi filed a motion asking that the Northern California Innocence Project be allowed to represent Burton during his requests for DNA testing. When it came time for the hearing, Sidawi — now a teaching assistant in the Innocence Project class — helped argue their case before a judge as Rutberg stood next to him at the podium. The motion was granted.
Though the box of hairbrushes has since been destroyed, Sidawi and others at the Innocence Project hope that blood samples, hairs, and a beer bottle — thought destroyed, then later found — taken from the scene of the crime will prove that Burton wasn't the killer. They are also asking to have the fingerprints lifted from the scene run through a criminal database, to see if another perpetrator can be identified.
"I think this is a good case for us," says Sidawi. "I think it's really hard for 12 people [in a jury] to agree on the completely wrong outcome of a case. You always have to be skeptical [of claims of wrongful conviction]. But reading through the transcript, I still don't see how [Burton] was convicted."