Exonerated man, Joe Burrows, finally at peace

Exonerated man, Joe Burrows, finally at peace

HOMER – Released from death row, Joe Burrows returned to the family he loved. But the Homer man, who died Oct. 15 at 56, had trouble getting the bitter taste of wrongful conviction out of his mouth.

His life began to spiral down more than 20 years ago, in 1988, when the body of William Dulin, a retired farmer, was discovered at his Iroquois County home.

A former Urbana resident, Gayle Potter, was arrested after she attempted to cash a $4,050 check on Dulin's account at a nearby bank and was arrested. She implicated two others, Burrows and Ralph Frye, a friend of Burrows.

Burrows was tried twice and eventually sentenced to death. But Frye recanted his testimony to then-News-Gazette reporter Peter Rooney.

Rooney, now an administrator at Amherst College, said this week that Mr. Burrows had locked eyes with him after a hearing, and the two eventually pieced together a story of a frameup that Rooney turned into his master's project at the University of Illinois.

Over several years, he covered the story and eventually worked his way into a co-defendant's confidence.

"Ralph Frye basically told me he had been brow-beaten and coerced into confessing a role in the murder," Rooney remembered.

Then two lawyers, Kathleen Zellner and Michael Hemstreet, were inspired by Rooney's stories to take on the Homer man's case.

Though progress was made, Mr. Burrows languished in prison.

"I've sat in a cage for five and a half years and watched my life crumble," Burrows told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Things build up on you until you're ready to scream."

Finally, Zellner got hold of a letter in which Potter asked a friend to lie in court testimony. Potter eventually admitted she had falsely accused Burrows and Frye.

On Sept. 8, 1994, Mr. Burrows was released, bearing a tattoo on his forearm that said "Die Free."

Zellner said that exoneration was welcomed by her client, but it was not enough to give him peace of mind.

"I thought he had a tragic life. Being wrongly convicted made him understandably bitter. It caused him to lose relationships he had in his life. As a person, Joe was a good man. He loved his children and wife, but he was under so much pressure," she said.

Rooney kept in touch with Mr. Burrows for several years and said that despite the pressures in his life, the Homer man was not all gloom.

"Even though he didn't do well in school academically, he had a quick wit, a certain intelligence and sparkle in his eyes – even after several years on death row," Rooney said. "He was devoted to his wife and children. I think a combination of his rough childhood and spending time in jail made him ill-suited for life on the outside."

In 1995, Mr. Burrows was sentenced to six years in prison for possession of methamphetamine-manufacturing chemicals.

Mr. Burrows' funeral was held Monday at Kirby Funeral Home in Homer. He was buried in the G.A.R. Cemetery in Homer. According to his obituary, he was survived by his wife Sherri Mattox, a son, a daughter, a granddaughter, five brothers and one sister. He was preceded in death by his parents, two brothers and a daughter.

Defense attorney Zellner said that in her experience, wrongful convictions are not as common as they once were, but not because of the Burrows case.

"I believe there are fewer false convictions because of DNA evidence," she said.

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