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Case Study: Ludrate Burton 

A jailhouse "snitch" fingered Burton for murder

Wednesday, Oct 29 2003
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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."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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