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."