|Frederick Burton is an innocent man that remains wrongfully incarcerated in
Pennsylvania after 40 years in prison. His life has been an amazing story of
overcoming the worst of circumstances. This page is a tribute to our love for him,
to his perseverance and to realizing his freedom from incarceration.
In 1970, Frederick Burton was twenty-five years old and living in his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mr.
Burton and his wife were just getting ready to have twins. Fred was about 25 years old, working for the phone
company and had never been in trouble with the law. His whole life seemed to be opening right before him. Little
did he realize that his life was about to be drastically changed forever.
A side story (soon to become the story) was that at the same time Philadelphia was the stage for some of the
worst community race and police relations in the United States. Fights in the streets between minority
communities and police were becoming regular. Groups such as the Black Panthers, and later MOVE were
organizing neighborhoods for the protection and general benefit of their residents.
On August 30, 1970, two police officers were shot, one killed, at a guard house in the park outside the
Philadelphia Museum of Art (which you may recall the steps from "Rocky."). Hugh Williams was arrested at the
scene. He was found a short distance from a handgun and a grenade. Mr. William's wife, Marie Williams, was
taken into custody and questioned for 19 hours. At that time Mrs. Williams was pregnant, was in pain, was not
fed, was separated from her children, and was not allowed to talk to her family or lawyer. She was placed in a
room adjacent to her husband. Hugh Williams, meanwhile, was chained to the floor by his foot and repeatedly
and audibly beaten by the police. With hopes to protect her husband and secure her own release, Ms. Williams
told the police a story.
Ms. Williams told the police that her husband and five other men met regularly in her basement. The men called
themselves "the Revolutionaries." Marie Williams did not attend these meetings but would hear talk from her
kitchen a floor above. She stated that the meetings were initially peaceful discussions of community issues but
became more violent in content. Sometime about a week before the shootings of the police officers, the men
talked about killing police by blowing up a police station "to get pressure off the blacks." Among the men that
Marie Williams eventually named as having participated regularly in these meetings was Frederick Burton.
Mrs. Williams tried not to testify against Mr. Burton. She specifically refused to do so at several pretrial hearings.
The Philadelphia prosecutor, Arlon Spector, and PA attorney general Fred Speaker then filed a petition to have
the Court grant Ms. Williams immunity and compel her to testify. At that hearing, the judge ordered Ms. Williams
to testify under a grant of immunity. Burton was not brought to trial for two years. By this time all the other men
named by Mrs. Williams had been tried and given life sentences, including Hugh Williams. At Mr. Burton's trial,
the jury was told the same story. Mrs. Williams was the only substantive witness against Mr. Burton. Mr. Burton
was convicted of conspiracy on her testimony for his participation in the meetings. He was sentenced to life in
prison. The year was 1972.
The Story Left Untold
About a month after the date of her alleged statement to the police, two years before Mr. Burton's trial, Marie
Williams wrote a letter to the prosecutor stating roughly the following:
- The statement attributed to her was a lie and the police forced her to write it against her will.
- The prosecutor made her come to court at the preliminary hearings in an attempt to make her lie.
- That at the preliminary hearings Ms. Williams was not permitted to speak to her attorney.
At the hearing for Mrs. Williams immunity, her attorney presented this letter in support of their opposition to the
court granting Mrs. Williams immunity. Her position was that you cannot give me immunity to lie. The testimony
that the prosecution wants me to present is false. Mrs. Williams called witnesses to prove that the her statements
were coerced. The Court was unconvinced by Mrs. Williams and granted her immunity. Mr. Burton was not
allowed to attend the immunity proceeding. He never learned the facts from the hearing nor about the
exoneration letter. Neither Mr. Burton, who was incarcerated, nor his attorney had any reason to suspect that
Mrs. Williams opposed being given immunity. Mr. Burton was only told the hearing occurred and Mrs. Williams
was granted immunity. For the same reason, the story that the judge, the jury and Mr. Burton's defense attorney
were told at the trial did not include the letter, the content of the immunity hearing, nor the fact that Mrs. Williams,
herself, attempted to prove that her own statement used to convict Mr. Burton was false and the product of
coercion. We discovered this evidence in 2003, when these documents suspiciously turned up in Mr Burton's file
without any of the file stamps contained on any of the other documents.
Mr. Burton's Prison Experience
Upon being sentenced to prison in 1972 Mr. Burton was automatically a target for the prison guards due to the
racially charged atmosphere and the nature of the conviction. Mr. Burton became an organizer in prison and a
teacher. His work was not appreciated by the authorities. Of the forty years Mr. Burton has been in prison, thirty
three of them have been in a maximum security facility. Eleven of those years have been spent in solitary
confinement. Mr. Burton has never committed an intentional act of violence in prison. Despite this history, Mr.
Burton persevered and developed his spirit.
Solitary confinement is torture. Imagine being confined in a tiny cell for 23 hours a day. Every day for one hour
you get a shower or exercise in a caged dog run. The only human contact you receive is with the guard who
brings your meals and puts them through a slot in the door. All of your visits are through Plexiglas while
handcuffed. If you are not incredibly driven, after a while your mind starts to erode. Mr. Burton kept his mind
strong by reading, exercising and nurturing his vision that he would prove his innocence to the Court.
In 2002, fresh out of law school, my wife and I (with help from my father) sued the prison system in Pennsylvania
to have Mr. Burton released from indefinite solitary confinement. He was so classified for refusing to cut his hair.
He had been held in solitary for that reason for six years. The prison eventually relented and released him into
general population at a medium security prison in Somerset. PA.
Since his initial confinement, Mr. Burton has worked tirelessly to prove his innocence. This path began again in
2003, when his family scraped together what money they could and paid for the reproduction of his 5000 page
record. In those documents, Mr. Burton found the letter from Marie Williams and the transcript from the immunity
hearing. We are unclear when those documents were mixed in with Mr. Burton's records but we do know that it
was sometime after 1999, the date of his then most recent federal habeas corpus petition. Upon contacting his
prior appellate attorneys, none of them had ever seen these immunity hearing documents in the record.
Unfortunately all of the original lawyers are dead. So Mr. Burton put together a large complex petition to the
Pennsylvania Court who had originally tried him, and then called us in on the case when my wife and I returned
from living in Mexico.
We fought our way through Pennsylvania Courts. None of those courts would hear the case. They all ruled that
because the petition was not filed within the 60 days of the discovery of the new documents the court lacked
jurisdiction to hear the case. After six years, we have finally arrived in the federal United States District Court for
the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. We have filed hundreds of pages of briefs and are now anxiously awaiting a
ruling from the court. We are soooo excited. Forty-plus years waiting for justice and now......
Your Support is Critical and Welcome
I have known Mr. Burton since I was a child. He is my godfather. My father was Mr. Burton's first appellate
attorney and secured his release from five years of solitary confinement in the late seventies. We would regularly
go to the prison to visit him in Pittsburgh throughout my childhood. I have spent my whole life working towards Mr.
Burton's release from the bars that confine his physical body. My belief in his innocence and desire to see it
manifest in no small way inspired my decision to practice law.
What inspires you? None of the people involved in this endeavor care for your money. However, your emotional
and mental support are critical to our efforts. Perhaps even more relevant is the joining of your intention to see
Mr. Burton free with the same collective intention that we have been fostering and growing through Mr. Burton's
family and through our greater communities. Your simple thought can change reality for Mr. Burton. We believe
that. Thank you for your support.